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TechWire Focus: Selling Web Candy To A Baby

For Related Stories:

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TW Focus
Find more Focus stories in our archive.

(07/14/97; 2:00 p.m. EDT)
By Evan Schuman, TechWire

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 publicist's throat.

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.

For child advocacy groups, the worry is that some corporations will use the power of Web multimedia to manipulate young and impressionable minds.
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.

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 harm.

Domino Effect

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 cognitive understanding."

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 information."

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 interaction."

"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
Another advantage of the Web when compared with commercial television is governmental restrictions, though industry guidelines might change much of that.

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, she says.

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 child."

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. end


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