February 11th, 2008

Children's Playtime Now Fun Time for Big-Time Advertisers

By Lena Sin
Vancouver Province (Canada)

Forget taking the kids to the park for fresh air and exercise. Playtime has gone virtual with the proliferation of online playgrounds, where kids adopt cartoon avatars and interact online.

But with the rising popularity of sites such as Webkinz or Neopets comes increasing concern about the insidious marketing tools being incorporated into kids’ playtime.

“A lot of games are nothing more than opportunities to market things to kids,” said Richard Smith, a professor at Simon Fraser University’s school of communication. “The online games are ways to enculture kids as consumers.”

Sara Grimes, a PhD candidate at SFU whose research is centred on children’s evolving relationship with new technology, said parents can easily be lulled into a sense of safety because media companies are careful not to raise red flags with violent or sexual content on children’s sites.

“What they are doing is using this notion of a safe or fun area that’s really kid-appropriate to advertise heavily and also conduct market research in almost every aspect of the sites,” said Grimes.

Advertising and marketing techniques run the gamut of placing a simple ad on the screen—which Webkinz did for the first time last October to much outcry—to actually incorporating products into the game.

In the world of Neopets, cute animal avatars can go shopping at the Disney store or eat at McDonald’s, while kids logging on to Barbiegirls.com can visit a virtual movie theatre and see trailers for the next Barbie DVD.

“It very much normalizes and bolsters consumer culture and gives the toy companies and fast-food companies this one-on-one interaction with kids that lasts much, much longer than a 30-second ad ever would,” said Grimes.

The number of children’s sites with no advertising or branding is almost negligible, according to Grimes.

And as many as 20 million children and teens will visit virtual worlds by 2011, up from 8.2 million in 2007, according to research firm EMarketer Inc.

In Canada, food and drink companies say they won’t advertise directly to children, or only promote healthy items if they do.

But in the absence of government regulation, entertainment companies are still getting unfettered access to study children’s behaviour through these virtual playgrounds with little disclosure on how that information is used.

“Whether they’re getting data that they can use to successfully market products and successfully develop products that kids are going to buy, that’s a whole other question. But they’re definitely trying to do that,” said Grimes.

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