Yesterday, MNN’s family blogger Jenn made her feelings well known about the feds decision to water down voluntary guidelines for food marketing aimed at children. Not only were the guidelines changed, but the age range for the guidelines was changed, too.
Originally, the guidelines were intended for children up to age 17, but now they only pertain to “kids younger than 12. The FTC concluded that ‘with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17, within the scope of covered marketing.’”
It is necessary. Every parent of a 12- to 17-year old knows that age group is highly vulnerable to marketing — and so does every marketer. If you’re a parent of an adolescent, you need to know there’s a form of advertising that you may be unaware of — advergames. Maybe you already know, and I’m the last to find out, but I doubt it.
My oldest son is 12. He gets frustrated at the rules my husband and I have set about video games and social media. “Everyone else” has a Facebook page. “Everyone else” gets to play video games whenever they want. “Everyone else” gets to have computers in their rooms, unrestricted access to YouTube, Twitter accounts, rated R movies loaded onto their iTouches….
Our reasons for the tight reign on our children’s use of technology basically falls under two categories. The first is that we don’t want them spending too much time in front of a screen. The second is for their protection.
My son recently made an astute observation. He told me that it’s harder to be a kid now than it was when I was a kid. When I laughingly asked why, he told me it was because he gets told “no” so much more than I did. There are so many more things to be told “no” about. He’s right.
But there’s a flip side to his observation. It’s harder for parents to know what their kids are being exposed to now than when I was his age. I had a radio, albums with the song lyrics printed on the sleeve, a TV with seven channels, and Judy Blume books for my parents to monitor. Parents today have so much more.
One thing I monitor is my boys’ exposure to advertising. For years, we had unhooked the cable TV and only watched videos and what we could stream through Netflix or Hulu. I listen to mostly public radio. Their exposure to advertising was more limited than most children's.
Recently, my husband recently re-subscribed to cable. I now try to be aware of what commercials they boys watch. My seventh grader now listens to top 40 radio. That’s more commercials he’s being exposed to. I feel fairly equipped to monitor and discuss the advertising that comes in these forms.
After something I read today, however, I realize I’m not equipped to monitor a type of advertising that my parents never had to deal with: online advertising in the forms of video games.
I read a post on Appetite for Profit titled PepsiCo wants to “scare the crap” out of your kids. A group is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate PepsiCo and its subsidiary Frito-Lay for their online games Hotel 626 and Asylum 626. These games have been created with the purpose of selling Doritos.
The two games are “advergames.” An advergame has been created specifically for advertising. I suppose my boys have played advergames before. The Thomas the Tank Engine and the Elmo games that they played online when they were little under my supervision could probably be considered advergames, even if my boys were learning to share and count while playing. When they were little, though, I sat with them every time they played an online game.
I’m not with my 12-year-old every second he’s on the computer anymore. I don’t think he’s aware of Hotel 626 or Asylum 626, but now I am. I'm also aware that since I now know games like this exist, I must to be more vigilant.
Read the description of Hotel 626 from its website.
In honor of Doritos bringing back two intense flavors from the dead, we created an intensely scary website. You're trapped in a hotel and have to complete challenges — like singing a demon baby to sleep — to get out. Hotel 626 uses several groundbreaking techniques to dial up the experience. Your webcam sneaks a picture of you and shows it to you later — inside the lair of a madman. Your one salvation is a phone call on your actual cell phone with directions on how to get out. To make it scarier, you have to play in the dark. Hotel 626 is only open from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Did you get that? Players need to use their webcams and cellphones in this game. According to Appetite for Profit, when the site is live, “the first screen warns the site is for ‘mature audiences only’ and those ‘under age 18 must not view without an adult guardian.’”
There’s no way for the website to enforce an age limit, and an “intensely scary website” that’s for “mature audiences only” is enticing to tweens and teens. Here’s where the scary part for parents comes in. With one easy click of a “Yes, I’m 18” button, kids are turning on their webcams and calling in with their cellphones (and inadvertently giving their cellphone numbers away). Players are also encouraged to login in with their Facebook or Twitter accounts for a fuller experience. That’s even more personal information given out.
All of this so Frito-Lay can sell more Doritos. It’s worked. Millions of people have played the games. The advertised flavors of Doritos have sold out.
Parents, we need to be on top of what our teens and tweens are watching and playing. We already know that junk food companies aren’t particularly concerned with our children’s health. And that’s okay. As Jenn said in her post yesterday, parents can say “no.” But now it seems that since these companies want our kids to give them access to their images, their cellphone numbers, and their Facebook pages, these companies aren’t concerned with our children’s personal safety either.
Food companies aren’t in the business to protect our children. They’re in the business to make money. Their marketers will always find new and creative ways to get into the public’s heads and make them want whatever they’re selling.
We need to know and understand this. We need to pass on information to each other about marketing tools like advergames. That’s what I’m doing now so you can know if your kids are playing these games and say “no” or monitor it vigilantly if you say “yes.”
Sure, your vigilance might frustrate your 12-year-old, but one day he’ll do the same thing when it’s his turn to monitor whatever future technology his children use.