World Magazine, Issue 2.7, October 1997
by Christian Clark
"Yehi hai right choice, Baby. Un Huh'!" sing two young rag-pickers as they wade through a heap of rubbish, gathering scraps of metal, paper and old bottles to sell in New Delhi, the bustling capital of India. Hips swinging and voices raised, the children seem to be caught in a spirited bubble which, for an instant, was lifting them above the dirt and filth on which they danced. Listening to these children sing out with spontaneous, joyous abandon makes one smile and then wonder at the incongruity of it all: for they are, in fact, warbling the television advertising slogan for Pepsi Cola, the giant American pop drink company which recently entered the newly liberalized Indian market place. Television in South Asia is increasing ruling the minds and imaginations of thousands of children, regardless of their situation in life.
Merchandise derived from UNICEF's Meena.
The Expansion of Television
Over the last decade television in India, like other countries in South Asia, has undergone a complete transformation, moving from a single channel, government-controlled service to a multi-channel, multi-optioned, transnational programming world. In 1991, the majority of Indian viewers had access to only one government-controlled television channel with limited broadcast hours. Today in major Indian cities, such as Bombay and New Delhi, cable networks are luring viewers with offers of 40 to 60 channels and the urban viewer is suddenly inundated with a bewildering choice of programs. The Cartoon Network has even newly arrived in Asia.
Early on in the game, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) recognized the power mass media could have in providing a catalyst for social change in South Asia - not just for selling soda pop. In November, the agency is set to launch in South Asia the Meena Communication Initiative - a radically new kind of communications experiment aimed at changing the lives of girls in South Asia, a region where sex discrimination is rife.
Tools To Empower Girls
The project will take advantage of all possible media channels with a multi-media package featuring an animated film series co-produced with Hanna-Barbera Cartoons in Los Angeles, a 15 part radio series on the BBC's Urdu, Bengali, Hindi and Nepali World Services (reaching some 55 million people), documentaries, comic books, posters, folk media and numerous other materials. Meena will not only be featured on television and radio, but the concept will also be integrated into the curriculums of schools throughout South Asia. Special kits will be made available for non-profit groups working on behalf of girls in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. Once officially launched it is expected that Meena will become not just a well-known and well-loved entertainment character for hundreds of millions of the region's people, but also a powerful advocate for the cause of female children throughout South Asia and beyond.
Meena in a scene from the episode Count Your Chickens.
Made possible through financial contributions from the Government of Norway and the UK National Committee for UNICEF, the initiative illustrates how creative and exciting stories can be used to promote social issues in an appealing and provocative way. The experiences and acute observations of Meena, a spunky ten-year-old South Asian heroine, and her parrot Mithu, not only expose the discrimination against girls in her family and community life, but also offer positive, achievable solutions, through an example of the empowerment of girls and women. Clearly, the Meena series represents a new approach to communication on the girl child issue. The series' objective is simple, if not daunting: to try to change the attitude of the region's over one billion people when it comes to how girls are treated.
UNICEF Goes Commercial
The Meena initiative is also a radical departure from traditional communication projects in the non-profit sector. It has been designed to be ultimately self-financing. As a result, after the launch the project is planned to move out of UNICEF and be set up as a quasi-independent foundation in its own right. While UNICEF, in the short term, will retain the copyright and trademark of Meena, the foundation will likely have its own administration and finances overseen by a steering committee of major stakeholders including the United Nations, governments in the region, private sector media partners and non-profit groups working with and on behalf of girls in the region. To put it into an animation industry perspective, the foundation will operate something like the U.S.-based Children's Television Workshop which produces the popular children's television show Sesame Street. One key difference: instead of promoting numeracy and literacy, the Meena project will promote girls' rights and excellence in children's media in the region.
It is a historic undertaking. To sustain such an ambitious project, UNICEF, for the first time in the United Nation's history, is planning to "commercialize" a project. Merchandising and licensing the Meena brand, syndicating the animated programs, as well as local sponsorships and "tie-ups," are all expected to come on-stream after the launch. The project is taking a long term commercial view, for it is recognized that changing the societal position and view of female children is a long-term endeavor.
Already in Bangladesh, Meena textiles, ceramics, dolls, writing products and greeting cards have been successfully pilot marketed and educational games are currently pending. The branding and merchandising of Meena in this way will achieve two important objectives: it will promote her image as a popular character and, as importantly, will raise income for funding the project's future activities.
A school in Bangladesh painted with Meena murals.
Elsewhere in the region, research has indicated that this is "do-able." A 1997 survey in India, for example, found tremendous commercial potential for the Meena brand in that country. A recent study by Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management Department of World Business, in Arizona, a top business university for international management in the U.S., came to a similar conclusion. As a result, last year the business school helped UNICEF develop full-fledged business plans for promoting Meena in the four countries involved in the project.
It is estimated that there are some 300 million people in the middle class consumer market in South Asia to which the Meena merchandise such as clothing, dishware, games, greeting cards, school bags, lunch boxes and pencils, could appeal. The project will also seek to extend UNICEF advocacy and program communication for girls through the marketing of a package of materials (such as videos, comic books, posters and facilitators' guides) built around Meena stories and characters.
A Strategy With Barriers
The pilot market study in Bangladesh has already helped UNICEF develop a merchandising strategy in that country which will reach not only the middle-class but also low-income urban and rural markets. The results showed that careful product placement could achieve a sustained market interest, especially amongst middle-class consumers. The strategy for UNICEF then is multi-fold:
- To promote the Meena concept through a wide range of electronic and non-electronic communication materials.
- To, along with Government agencies, outside non-profit groups and private sector partners, promote the wide scale use of the Meena Communication Package.
- To develop Meena commercial products and license the Meena image, in collaboration with both non-profit producer groups and the commercial sector.
- To implement completed commercial strategies and business plans in order to promote Meena products in both urban and rural markets.
The commercial survey recently completed in India concluded that the gross proceeds coming from the sales in India alone from just 11 Meena products could be as much as U.S. $6 million in the first three years following the launch. That's the good news. The report cautions, however, to see this a reality UNICEF would need to invest U.S. $1.4 million in an advertising campaign to initially build awareness of the Meena brand. The advertising budget is arguably on the high side as an agency such as UNICEF could probably obtain free advertising on products at the end of each Meena television episode.
A group of young Indian girls read a Meena storybook. The
protagonist is designed to be a role model for female children.
Even if a commercial partner was found to aid UNICEF in the commercialization of Meena, the marketing of cartoon characters in South Asia continues to be a hard sell. Ask Disney, which had to scale back efforts in India this year after running into a multitude of problems. Foremost among the problems UNICEF faces is the fact that chain stores are virtually non-existent, and distribution channels nationally and regionally continue to be archaic.
There is one bright spot on the horizon though. Commercial surveys have repeatedly found consumers in the region are willing to pay more for products with the well known UNICEF logo on them. The agency has high name recognition and is acknowledged to be doing a lot for the region's children. It remains to be seen, however, if the organization can be as successful in commerce as they have been for kids.
Christian Clark is a former cartoonist and a two-time Emmy award-winning writer for the children's television show Sesame Street. He is currently the head of the Meena Communication Initiative in UNICEF's regional office for South Asia located in Kathmandu, Nepal.
For more information about UNICEF and its numerous animated projects, visit their website on AWN at:
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