Edtech brands have come under huge fire for aggressive advertising practices and marketing tactics that have eroded brand trust and caused huge concern among parents across India. Industry bodies like The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) have repeatedly flagged off advertising in the education sector which is one of the biggest violators of advertising codes laid down by ASCI.
Edtech brands, it seems, are mimicking some of the bad practices seen in traditional education advertising.
The industry body states in the latest report that like traditional education ads, edtech ads overemphasise marks and ranks, with mathematics and science dominating the subjects depicted in advertisements. A majority of parents said ads showed high pressure of studies and it also points out that none of the endorsers/role models depicted in the ads are from the academic fields. Other concerns were about stereotypes of gender, physical appearances and the mother’s roles in ads.
In education ads, the insecurities and vulnerabilities of parents are aggravated by creating a false sense of urgency and a fear of missing out, which experts found to be one of the most alarming concerns.
ASCI's new study EdNext, which also proposed a framework called RAISE to elevate the communication around edtech, hopes that a checklist will act as a guide to help marketers and creative experts review concepts at the inception stage of the ad itself.
The report highlighted the key issues with edtech advertising that also point to deeper concerns on how we view education in the country. Brands play off everything from parents' and students' dreams to insecurities, perpetuating an hugely unhealthy approach to education.
Key problem areas
The in-depth analysis of 100 ads from the EdTech industry across TV, digital and print revealed some dominant patterns, based on coding of creative elements such as context, characters, messages, product benefits, and visuals.
1) Nearly half of the ads analysed talked about better results or high scores in exams, and highlighted past toppers who enrolled with them. About one-third of edtech ads use some sort of superlative claim of being the ‘best’ or ‘largest’ or ‘top’ in some parameter. 26 percent of ads make promises guaranteeing success in the form of improving marks, helping students become a topper, etc. Besides the fact that many of these claims are misleading, these narratives underscore and reinforce the narrow view of education.
2) In some ads, exam times are shown as a war-like situation and students as warriors fighting a battle. The music and the dramatisation create an atmosphere of a do-or-die battle. A very clear underlying message is that failure is not an option, and that the entire future of children rests on scoring well in exams. Sacrifices to sleep and relaxation are normalised even for middle school students.
3) Though important to parents, teachers seem to be kept in the background in most edtech advertising, or were used as props. Out of the 100 ads analysed, 55 ads depicted a teacher, but only 14 ads had an active role for the teacher, or showed an active teacher-student interaction. Out of those, teachers were shown as compassionate or encouraging only in nine ads. In some ads, they are seen as uniformed representatives of the EdTech platforms. This is a departure from the cultural lens through which our society sees teachers and their contribution, and such representations can make parents and other stakeholders uneasy.
4) One of the patterns observed is a gender imbalance in representation of children that interact with edtech, with representation skewed towards boys. In ads showing maths as a subject, boys were chosen as the protagonists about 2.5x more than girls. Even mothers were depicted in stereotypical roles – around the kitchen or watching TV/serials. The gender bias in favour of men also extends to teachers featured in the ads and celebrities endorsing the brand. In a nutshell, they reinforce harmful stereotypes. More conscious efforts need to be undertaken to correct this bias that has crept into edtech advertising.
The study states that edtech marketers candidly accepted the errors made in the past. But the industry also felt that the objective to benefit every student had been misconstrued to be an overemphasis on ‘toppers’ due to insensitively framed communication. The industry representatives reiterated that just like any other business, they cannot be expected to move away from being focused on outcomes and responding to market demands, albeit recognising the need for sensitivity and prudence.
One edtech marketer also said, “I think we have done a bad job in talking about the good things which all of us are doing.”