April 21st, 2011
McDonald’s Makes Subtle Play for Children Online
The New York Times
McWorld, a Web site for children sponsored by McDonald’s, offers visitors the chance to create characters, decorate digital treehouses and go on a quest in a virtual world.
French fries, hamburgers and apple pies are nowhere to be seen.
This is the latest in online marketing, where the hope is that a site’s visitor will naturally associate the brand with a pleasurable activity. It is a type of advertising that has less in common with a 30-second television spot than with a product placement in a movie.
It is also a glimpse of the future, said Mark Smale, a senior vice president with Creata, the Australian company that created the site for McDonald’s. Mr. Smale said in an interview that companies are realizing that, when going online, the best strategy is to forgo immediate sales in order to build lasting emotional relationships with children. In that sense, McWorld is a more sophisticated version of the sites that Matt Richtel discusses in an article about the online marketing of food to children.
“It’s not overtly aimed at trying to sell product,” Mr. Smale said. “If it is, the people you’re trying to reach won’t be interested, they won’t be engaged.”
This approach, known as engagement-based marketing, has become an important tool for companies marketing to children. Mr. Smale’s clients also include Kellogg’s, Nestle, and Coca-Cola. At an industry conference in New York in February, about 50 people gathered to hear Mr. Smale talk about Creata’s approach.
Critics see such marketing as an unfair way to manipulate children who may not realize what is going on. And there are parts of McWorld and other food sites that encourage purchases. McWorld prompts children to enter codes from Happy Meal boxes to unlock things like special gear for their online avatars.