Indian Ed-Tech Startup Draws Flak Over Advertising Claims

Bengaluru — Nine-year-old Garvit Sood, who had suffered from eye problems since the age of 3, created an eye-testing app, which he claims is one of its kind. The boy says all this in an advertisement for WhiteHat Jr, an online learning platform on coding for kids. Garvit will now be going to Silicon Valley as a reward for his innovation, the advertisement claims.

“You can fix stuff or break stuff via coding. Coding is just great,” says 12-year old Arushi Saha in another advertisement. Saha says she is making an app to end world hunger and poverty by enabling people to donate food and clothes.

These success stories, however, have also led to a slew of controversies for the 18-month-old ed-tech startup.

This week, WhiteHat Jr was asked by the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) to pull down five of its advertisements for making dubious and unsubstantiated claims.

“We had been receiving complaints for the past few weeks regarding WhiteHat Jr’s misleading ads,” said Manisha Kapoor, ASCI secretary general. “Based on the complaints, we found a few ads objectionable and asked the company for an explanation, to which, they said they would straightaway withdraw the ads. They have taken down the ads and agreed to cooperate by following the ASCI code henceforth.”

Over the past month, WhiteHat Jr had launched a barrage of advertisements with claims of creating coding wizards out of primary school kids. Many of the ads were scheduled during the Indian Premium League (IPL) cricket matches, which drew 7.3 billion viewing minutes and a cumulative reach of 110 million per match in the first four weeks, according to data from the Broadcast Audience Research Council India.

“I believe ASCI woke up too late,” said Sandeep Goyal, chairman of Mogae Media and a veteran in the field of advertisement.

“The damage is already done. ASCI gave a window of one month to run the advertisements during IPL. Now, the ASCI verdict is known only to a handful of people. From day one of the advertisement, it was clear that the claims by WhiteHat Jr were false. However, ASCI did nothing to stop it.”

WhiteHat Jr didn’t respond to Zenger News’ request for comments.

WhiteHat Jr, which offers its coding lessons to early childhood students in India and the United States, was acquired by Bengaluru-based Byju’s, the world’s most valuable ed-tech startup and a decacorn, in a $300 million cash deal on Aug 5.

In addition to claims of misleading ads by WhiteHat Jr, several content creators accuse the startup of unethical marketing and online bullying.

An “ad-roast” video on WhiteHat Jr posted on YouTube by  12-year-old Jihan Haria was taken down due to “copyright infringement.”

Haria had used footage from a WhiteHat Jr ad that shows a neighbor gaping in awe as a group of investors quarrel over buying the application of a child named Chintu, who designed the app after taking WhiteHat Jrcourses.

Pradeep Poonia, a 30-year-old software engineer, has been one of WhiteHat Jr’s most vocal critics.

“WhiteHat Jr has been bullying me online,” Poonia told Zenger News.

He had posted 16 review videos on WhiteHat Jr on his YouTube channel, all of which he said were cited for copyright infringement and taken down.

His Twitter account and two Reddit accounts have been suspended.

Last week, YouTube reinstated all of his videos and restored the two suspended channels.

“I had filed multiple counter-notifications for the takedowns, all of which were held unclear by the platform. But the company itself later called the copyright takedown requests invalid.”

One of the videos taken down shows a telephone interaction between Poonia and a WhiteHat Jr salesperson, who claims that out of the 500 students who had participated in the Silicon Valley challenge, more than 36 had visited the tech center in California. He also claimed that the winners of special competitions would get to meet Tesla founder Elon Musk and Sonam Wangchuk, founding-director of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh.

One of WhiteHat Jr’s ads on content platforms claims Wolf Gupta, a 9-year-old WhiteHat Jr student, is earning INR 150 crores ($1.5 billion). Social media users claim this “student” is a fictional character because the same student is also shown as a 12-year-old earning INR 1.2 crores ($12 million) and as a 13-year-old earning $1.2 million. This ad, too, has been criticized for equating children’s success with monetary achievements.

“WhiteHat Jr is giving false hopes to Indian parents who are already very strict when it comes to their kids’ career choices. We, as grownups can handle failure, but how will the kids respond to the pressure of earning a seven-digit salary?” said Poonia.

“For a child, health concerns, safety issues, nutrition, self-esteem, education and socialization are important,” said S. S. Mantha, former chairman of the All India Council for Technical Education and the current chancellor of K L University in Andhra Pradesh.

“The ads showing a 9-year-old or a 12-year-old earning in crores can be a disservice to the child’s overall growth,” said Mantha, who is on the advisory board of a few ed-tech startups. “The parents must realize that money comes at a price. A warped psyche is certainly not what they are looking for in their son or daughter.”

Teachers and educators who have worked with these startups have now become vocal critics of the marketing strategies of WhiteHat Jr.

“I started raising concerns about the content quality early on, but none paid heed,” said Tavleen Duggal, a 23-year-old software engineer and a former teacher with WhiteHat Jr.

After her suggestions were overlooked, her grievances were mishandled, and the education quality deteriorated, Duggal said, she quit her job at WhiteHat Jr last month.

“Things were not that bad before Covid-19. Everything was structured, the team was wonderful, and people were ethical. But as the growth spurt came nearer, the quality went down,” she said.

Duggal said that teachers are handed conversational scripts and are asked to follow them,.

“Since most of them lack coding experience, they have no choice but to refer to these scripts, which fail to answer spontaneous questions from the learners,” said Duggal.

WhiteHat Jr’s instant popularity is due, in part, to its ability to combine both logic and creativity, Mantha said.

“The parents have been complaining there is a deficit of experiential learning in schools. WhiteHat Jr provides a coding platform where the child can innovate on a host of ideas without inhibition.”

Despite all of the issues surrounding WhiteHat Jr, the likelihood of ed-tech platforms going away is unlikely. Career choices in India are often decided by parents, and WhiteHat Jr is zeroing in on targeting them.

Tech-based jobs continue to be the top career option in India.

According to a survey by Statista on the career choice of Indians, a majority of respondents from post-millennial and millennial generations aspired to work in technology companies including engineering or at startups. Over 38 percent of post-millennials preferred to work in tech companies and startups.

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Judy Isacoff.)

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