Marketing to Children: Smart but Sleazy

There is no doubt that the proliferation of computers, iPads, cell phones, and the Internet has created an amazingly complex and constantly evolving  marketing ecosystem that is transforming how business is done.

The British recently conducted an independent review of pressures on children and whether they’re being forced to grow up too fast in this age of viral marketing.  They commissioned a six month investigation into what is termed “the commercialization and sexualization of childhood,” and the report isn’t pretty.  What they’re looking at in Britain, we in the U.S. have chosen not to view too closely; at least for the moment.  Some have called the marketing to children in this country a “brilliant media strategy”, and others call it “unfair manipulation of our children.”   An argument can be made that the tactics employed to target children in this country via social media purposefully circumvent parents, who presumably have the judgment to avoid unhealthy products on behalf of their children.  Of course, one look at the ballooning waistlines of Americans would lead one to believe the opposite.  Nevertheless, here are some interesting examples of kid-directed marketing campaigns.

McDonalds uses cell phones to target users based on previous buying history, location, and other profiling data to target children. McDonald’s McFlurry mobile marketing campaign, designed specifically for the younger demographic is a good example. Six hundred McDonald’s restaurants in California urged young cell phone users to text-message to a special phone number to receive an instant electronic coupon for a free McFlurry dessert. They were encouraged to download free cell phone wallpaper and ring tones featuring top artists, and to email the promotional Web site link to their friends.  The company followed this with ads on buses, billboards, postings near high schools; and, would you believe skywriting airplanes with a “Text McFlurry 73260” message?

Not to be outdone by McDonalds, cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s included web addresses on millions of its sugary Corn Pops cereal boxes that directed  consumers to a certain web page that collected personal data and displayed various offers.  After submitting their information, the consumers received a text message with a trivia question, and those who answered it correctly received a free Corn Pops screensaver, as well as a chance to win additional prizes, including “pre-paid airtime, a free phone, or other prizes.”   Although the Corn Pops screensaver is a dubious prize at best, it certain illustrates the nature of these types of campaigns.

Peer-to-peer marketing is another popular method of targeting the youth market.  Savvy market researchers identify certain young people who are socially influential to serve as “brand sirens,” promoting products to their peers through instant messaging, social networking sites, and blogs. All over the Internet and in the mobile marketplace, companies are creating elaborate viral campaigns to get the kids playing their games and generating buzz.

KFC recently used a high-pitched tone as a promotional device for a recent interactive ad campaign.” The MosquitoTone™ was embedded in TV commercials to launch KFC’s new Boneless Variety Bucket™” (which probably tastes as disgusting as it sounds).  KFC explained that the popular cell phone ring tone is too high-pitched for most adults to hear because people begin to lose the ability to hear high frequency tones starting at age 20.   This promotion is actually compelling to young people who love clandestine ring tones that don’t alert nearby adults (and who apparently don’t know how to switch their phone to vibrate).  When the tone is inserted in the TV commercial, the secret sounds attract the attention of young viewers and “drive” them to a Web site, where they could enter a contest in order to win $10 “KFC gift checks” redeemable for the new chicken meal at any KFC. The company’s chief marketing officer called the innovative buzz campaign “the 21st Century dinner bell.”  Many parents call it subversive and more than a little chilling.  One wonders when that tone will be used to implant hypnotic commands into our kids’ minds.

Regulatory authorities are becoming increasingly desperate to keep pace with the rapidly evolving technologies that influence our children’s minds.  The FTC recently announced planned changes to its rules enforcing the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which was introduced several years ago in an effort to regulate the online collection of data from children.  Among other things, the current  version of the rule requires companies that operate websites directed to children to obtain their parents “verifiable consent” to have their kids participate in the online activity.  The FTC is expected to beef up this requirement, and to require companies to undertake greater efforts to protect children’s privacy online.

In the final analysis, there is no conceivable way that government can possibly keep abreast of the pace of technological change.  That fact, coupled with endlessly inventive minds of marketing gurus, will no doubt lead us to interesting challenges in the future.


Author: Seth Heyman
Seth D. Heyman is a California attorney with extensive experience in advertising and marketing law, corporate law, contracts, governmental regulations, international business, and Internet law. He has counseled numerous successful companies, both public and private, and was responsible for regulatory compliance, contract management, corporate governance, and HR best practices for multiple organizations in many diverse industries, including marketing, telecommunications, energy, and technology development. He offers insight and guidance on federal and state direct mail, TV, radio, telemarketing, and Internet marketing laws, as well as online promotions, Internet privacy, data protection regulations, and similar matters.

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