(07/14/97; 2:00 p.m. EDT)
It seemed like a harmless idea at the time. Nabisco
was creating a Website to entertain young children -- and to help
them recognize the Nabisco name. But the cookie king quickly
discovered the Web's double-edged marketing sword.
During a Nabisco meeting, someone suggested that a birthday
feature be created on the Website so Nabisco could E-mail birthday
cards to children and maybe even send them boxes of cookies.
Nabisco executives, however, feared that parents would find the
offering intrusive. According to many parent Internet advocacy
organizations, the Nabisco fear was not misplaced.
Many large corporations such as Nabisco are discovering that Web
marketing to children is a double-edged sword -- one that can just
as easily slash marketing costs as it can cut a reputation-concerned
On the one hand, children are an important strategic audience for
many companies that sell products ranging from cookies to cereals to
toys to T-shirt decals. They are also a market that is not easily
reached unless a company is prepared to spend huge amounts of money
for network television commercials.
The Internet -- especially the Web -- is attractive to children
and can hold their attention for extended periods of time.
But various entities
-- ranging from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to many
parent advocacy groups -- are making Websites designed for children
more difficult to run than their adult counterparts. Even though a
major plus of the Web is its interactivity, there are concerns about
children's being asked to supply identifying information, including
E-mail addresses and street addresses that the Nabisco birthday
proposal would have sought.
For child advocacy
groups, the worry is that some corporations will use the power
of Web multimedia to manipulate young and impressionable
Child advocacy groups worry that some corporations will use the
power of Web multimedia to manipulate young and impressionable
minds. On a more dangerous level, many parents are nervous about the
frequent media reports of child molesters' using the Net to gather
information about children, then using that data to lure them to
Although few people suspect large corporations of posing physical
threats to children, the fear is that children who are comfortable
sharing private information with a Ronald McDonald or the Tony the
Tiger animation character might not hesitate sharing similar
information when visiting a public newsgroup.
"People don't tend to make the distinction between marketing and
stalking," said Elizabeth Lascoutx, a vice president and director of
the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and a child advertising advocate.
"The General Mills of the world are not out there to harm children."
Lascoutx runs a unit at BBB called the Children's Advertising
Review Unit. CARU's advertising guidelines -- and especially its
Internet advertising guidelines -- have become the heart of the
debate about Web marketing to children. (See
related story on CARU guidelines.)
The challenge of creating a successful Website without violating
those guidelines is falling to a small group of Internet consulting
companies working for the nation's largest corporations that target
young consumers. One such company, Magnet Interactive
Communications, was retained by Kellogg and Matchbox.
Magnet CEO Basel Dalloul says he understands the objectives of
some of the parent advocacy groups, but finds some of their efforts
unrealistic and out of context.
"I have to laugh and ask whether they've ever watched Saturday
morning cartoons," he says.
U.S. Gov't Takes A Back Seat
Last week, President Clinton's White House Framework For Global
Electronic Commerce made clear the U.S. government's intentions
to stay as far from this debate as possible, preferring to let
the industry and parent groups slug it out on their own.
Industry has some strong motivation to cooperate.
"Kellogg has actually spawned products out of information it has
gathered from its site," Magnet's Dalloul says. "The medium is interactive.
For the first time, this is direct communication [with young consumers]
rather than several times removed through the distribution channel."
"The Web is taking marketing from a passive way of dealing with
children to actually start communicating with them and finding out
what they like and what they don't like," says Gregg Edelmann, creative
director of Internet efforts at On-Line Design,
whose clients include Nabisco, Disney, Kraft and AT&T. "The
cost involved in a Website is dramatically less than putting on
one TV commercial." Indeed, those Web costs could be literally as
much as 100 times less, given that a typical nationwide TV commercial's
production and air purchase costs are often more than $2 million,
compared with a Website that might cost less than $20,000, he says.
Add to that fact that Web marketing lets companies "quite carefully
solicit information from children that was never available from
TV advertising," Edelmann says.
It is precisely those interactive information-gathering capabilities
that most troubles child advocates.
"To me, it's outrageous," says Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist
who has testified frequently on marketing and the Web before the
FTC and various congressional hearings. "When a child is being asked
to give up financial information -- like how many cars do their
parents have -- that's over the line. I know they don't have the
He adds, "Young children don't have a great sense of secrecy. For
a prize, they'll give it out. This is wrong to take this financial
Karen Kafer, director of communications at Kellogg USA, disagrees.
"It's a wonderful new way to interact with our consumers, one on
one," she says. "We know what appeals to our consumers most is the
Another advantage of the Web when compared with
commercial television is governmental restrictions, though industry
guidelines might change much of that.
"When a child is
being asked to give up financial information -- like how many
cars do their parents have -- that's over the line. I know they
don't have the cognitive understanding." -- Michael
Brody, child psychiatrist
A lot of the regulations that apply to children's television do
not apply to the Internet, Brody says.
"On television, you cannot use one of the Power Rangers to directly
sell products," he says. "You don't have Batman selling his products.
On the Web, it's very seamless and unclear the difference between
the programming content and the advertising."
Spelling It Out For Safety
Some sites have tried to create a distinction between programming
content and advertising. On McDonalds' site,
a message on a Happy Meal ad says, "Hey kids, this is advertising."
A more creative approach is used at Kidscom, a site owned by a
company that develops Websites. It has created an animated GIF called
The Ad Bug.
Whenever an ad appears, this little animated bug appears like a
postage stamp in the screen's upper right-hand corner and starts
waving and jumping up and down to signal readers that it's an advertisement.
Still, some say the word "Ad" or "Advertisement" doesn't necessarily
mean anything to many children.
Another major child advocacy group is the Center For Media Education,
a nonprofit media watchdog group that focuses on online issues.
The center just completed a study for the FTC on how Websites marketed
to children, based on visits to many major corporate sites in June
and July. Highlights of those results
show relatively little compliance with industry guidelines.
Shelley Pasnik, the center's director of children's policy, says
her concern is the "commercial manipulation" of children by a lot
of these well-financed corporations.
The marketing "dictates behavior, and it's going to determine what
the child thinks and what the child does," Pasnik says. Although
companies often say they are polling children to determine their
preferences, those companies are "assuming that the child is static
and has some inherent tastes." The companies create tastes,
Take the differences that have been defined between girls and boys.
"That is all driven through marketing messages," she says. "The
selling of feelings and emotions, the desire to be hip and to be
cool and to have great stuff. They're saying the child is going
to drive the product, but often it's the product that drives the
Can't Touch St. Nick
Another concern of some child advocates is the use of popular characters
to speak to children. Although some maintain that McDonalds has
an absolute right to use Ronald McDonald to hawk its burgers, the
debate gets more complicated when it involves legendary characters
such as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.
In fact, Colgate, the giant toothpaste maker, uses the Tooth Fairy
in an ad for dental hygeine. "It's a good idea to brush your teeth,
but to have the Tooth Fairy soliciting information from children
is grossly unfair," Brody says. "This is someone that children have
learned to trust. Children are at an unfair disadvantage because
they're not cognitively ready for the marketplace."
CARU's Lascoutx was less concerned about the characters directed
at children, provided the children know about credibility. "I don't
see that there's anything worse about doing it on the Web than having
Ronald [McDonald] in the stores or Ronald at the mall or having
Ronald anywhere else," she says. "As long as a kid is aware that
Ronald is a spokesperson for a brand" and knows what that means.
One of the more challenging goals of CARU is to require Websites
that are marketing to children to get parents' permission before
asking questions of the child. That will often require a parent
sending in a statement in the mail or, at the very least, making
a phone call.
"In the non-online-world, [the child would] say, 'Mom, can I have
a stamp?'" Lascoutz says, adding that a discussion would then likely
take place. With the Internet, a Website must take steps to force
a parent to get involved, she says.