August 15th, 2011
Marketing to kids more savvy with technology
Isabella Sweet doesn’t wear a target on her chest. But kid marketers covet this 9-year-old as if she does.
Perhaps it’s because she’s a techie.
The fourth-grader from Davis, Calif., spends almost an hour a day on the Webkinz website. The site charms kids by linking Webkinz plush animals — of which she owns 18 — with online games that encourage kids to earn and spend virtual money so they can create elaborate rooms for virtual versions of their Webkinz pets.
The site does one more thing: It posts ads that reward kids with virtual currency when they click. Every time a kid clicks on an ad, there’s a virtual ka-ching at the other end for Ganz, which owns Webkinz.
At issue: With the use of new, kid-enchanting technologies, are savvy marketers gaining the upper hand on parents? Are toy marketers such as Ganz, food marketers such as McDonald’s and kid-coddling apparel retailers such as 77kids by American Eagle too eager to target kids?
At stake: $1.12 trillion. That’s the amount that kids influenced last year in overall family spending, says James McNeal, a kid marketing consultant and author of Kids as Consumers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. “Up to age 16, kids are determining most expenditures in the household,” he says. “This is very attractive to marketers.”
It used to be so simple. A well-placed TV spot on a Saturday-morning cartoon show or a kid-friendly image on a cereal box was all it took. No longer. The world of marketing to kids has grown extremely complex and tech-heavy. Marketers that seek new ways to target kids are aware of new calls for federal action — including voluntary marketing guidelines that would affect food marketers. Kids, who are spending less time watching TV and more time on computers or smartphones, are becoming targets online.
“Marketers are getting more and more devious,” says Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a watchdog group. With the growing use of smartphones and social media, she says, “They have new avenues for targeting children” that parents might miss.
Even ad-savvy parents are sometimes unaware how marketers are reaching out to their children.
Getting around ad blockers
While on the Webkinz site, Sweet recently clicked once a day for seven days on an ad for a film trailer that was posted for Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer. She says that she wasn’t really interested in the movie. But each day that she clicked it and answered three questions, she earned a virtual lime-green dresser and bulletin board for the rooms she created online for her Webkinz.
“I’ve got five dressers and seven bulletin boards,” says the girl. “I don’t have enough rooms to fit them all in.”
This kind of marketing to kids drives Isabella’s mother crazy. “They’re doing this right under the noses of parents,” says Elizabeth Sweet, a doctoral student at University of California-Davis doing her dissertation on the marketing of kids’ toys. Even so, she says, she had no idea about the video ads on Webkinz until her daughter told her.
“This whole planting of movie videos in the online game experience is new to me,” Sweet says. “What bothers me most is that when she first signed up for the site, I thought it was OK.”
Sweet has an ad-blocker app on her browser. These movie ads are woven into the site content in such a way that her daughter sees — and responds to them — anyway, she says.
“We occasionally introduce limited-time promotions so that our Webkinz World members can enjoy fun, unique activities and events,” says Susan McVeigh, a Ganz spokeswoman, in an e-mail.
But Elizabeth Sweet isn’t the only parent who’s unhappy with how and what Webkinz markets to kids.
Last month, Christina Cunningham, a full-time mother from Port St. Lucie, Fla., happened to look over as two of her daughters — ages 9 and 7 — were signing onto the Webkinz website. On the log-in screen, an ad flashed for BabyPictureMaker.com, which nudges consumers to download pictures of two people — promising to send back a picture of what a baby they might have together would look like.
“This is not acceptable,” says Cunningham, who shooed her kids away from the site and fired off an e-mail to Webkinz. When she didn’t hear back, she sent another. Again, she says, she received no response. But McVeigh says Webkinz e-mailed Cunningham responses, twice. A frustrated Cunningham contacted Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The group contacted Webkinz, which removed the ad. “We will make sure to open an investigation into the matter and take the appropriate steps,” spokeswoman McVeigh assured the group in a letter.
The fast-food connection
Webkinz declined to share the outcome of this investigation with USA TODAY — nor would it explain how the ad got on the site. “We’re fully committed to a responsible approach regarding advertising and the advertisers we allow on the site,” says McVeigh, in an e-mail.
But in the eyes of some parents, no one goes more over the top in marketing to kids than the big food sellers — particularly sellers of high-sugar cereals and high-fat, high-calorie fast food.
That’s one reason the Obama administration is proposing that foodmakers adopt voluntary limits on the way they market to kids.
These proposed voluntary guidelines, to be written by a team from four federal agencies, have set the food and ad industries howling — even before they’ve been completed.
“I can’t imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to address obesity,” said Scott Faber, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, at a May hearing.
But Wayne Altman thinks the voluntary guidelines are critical.
He’s a family physician in the Boston area who has three sons ages 13, 5 and 4. He’s particularly concerned about Ronald McDonald. “We know that children under 8 have no ability to establish between truth and advertising,” he says. “So, to have this clown get a new generation hooked on a bad product just isn’t right.”
Because of the obesity, heart disease and food-related illnesses fed partly by savvy food marketers such as McDonald’s, Altman says, “We have a generation of children that is first to have a life expectancy less than its parents.”
Plenty of others think as Altman does, even though Ronald is regularly used to promote Ronald McDonald House Charities. Ronald also shows up in schools. He’s got his own website, Ronald.com, where the clown promises that kids can “learn, play and create while having fun.” And he’s the focal point of a new social-media campaign that nudges kids to download their own photos with images of Ronald and share them with friends.