When I told my 6-year-old he could choose some candy at the supermarket checkout, he grabbed a package of Sweet Tarts and proceeded to do a little song-and-dance number for the cashier. "Is that from the TV commercial?" she asked him. "No," he replied. "It's from the Sweet Tarts Internet game."
The Internet economy may be on the rocks, but the business of marketing to kids online is booming. More than two-thirds of all Internet sites designed for kids and teens use advertising as their primary revenue stream. Since obvious tactics, such as banner ads and buttons, have been less than successful in nabbing youthful consumers, sites are now employing more creative techniques, from games to e-mails to wireless technology. There are hardly any commercial-free zones left on the Internet, says Kathryn Montgomery, president of the watchdog group Center for Media Education. "Parents need to be aware that online ads are now cropping up in places they may not expect."
To teach kids to be critical consumers, you must take the time to examine what they are seeing and discuss with them how to evaluate those messages. And to do that effectively, you need to know where the messages are coming from:
-- GAMES. Some 55% of children's and teens' sites now feature games, up from 43% last year. Although original games with no commercial tie-in are still common, they have been joined by a growing army of product-related offerings. These games offer the same rich graphics and high-energy activities kids are used to.
Increasingly, consumer goods have starring roles. On FoxKids.com, where my son enjoyed the Sweet Tarts game, Burger King and McDonald's have also appeared. Their products may be the game pieces, the hidden treasure, or some other integral part of the game. Kids spend as much as 30 minutes per online session on the Fox site, much of that playing games. That's far more time with a young consumer than a marketer could hope to achieve with a television commercial, says Allison Ellis, general manager at FoxKids.com.
Ellis recognizes that parents may be concerned about the product pitches, but so far, she says, they haven't been willing to support an ad-free subscriber site. In fact, research shows that the number of children's sites with no advertising has dropped from 10% of all kids' sites last year to just 2% today. "We are up front that we are funded by advertisers, and so it's clear that advertising is going to be on our site," Ellis says. "Our goal is to make it fun and maintain standards so that kids are not seeing something inappropriate." Game-and-ad combos are labeled "sponsored content," she notes.
To get the undivided attention of users--without the presence of competing advertisers--marketers are also creating their own sites. One example is Candystand.com, which enjoyed extensive word-of-mouth buzz after promos appeared on Nabisco candy packages. The site stars members of the Nabisco confection lineup, such as LifeSavers and Now and Later chews. Its downloadable miniature-golf game, which uses LifeSavers to mark the holes, is especially popular. Candystand.com "is a very clever integration of product and games," says Barbara Feldman, who writes a syndicated column called Surfing the Net With Kids and has a Web site of the same name. The key, she says, is to be sure your kids recognize the sales pitch as well as the entertainment factor. And remind them that even if they encounter a contest or offer of free merchandise on the site, they should refrain from giving out their e-mail or home address.
-- E-MAIL. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, enacted last year, forbids companies from using e-mail to sell to kids under 13 without parental permission. But while marketers can't e-mail kids, kids can e-mail each other--and more and more, they're passing along advertising messages gleaned from commercial Web sites. It can be as simple as an e-card with a Sesame Street character, which a child can pick up from Sesameworkshop.org, or a hyperlink to a Nike site that hosts video clips (starring the shoes, of course).
E-mail is the primary conduit for the "viral" campaigns (they used to be known as word of mouth) that rely on kids to hit the forward button, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, a leading Internet research firm. One example: Lee Jeans targeted 200,000 young men last year with e-mails sent out by its ad agency that carried mysterious and amusing video clips. Distributed by recipients to an average of six friends each, the e-mails directed consumers to a specially designed online game, and ultimately, to stores, where secret codes for prizes were printed on price tags.
-- CHAT ROOMS AND NEWSGROUPS. There are lots of independent gathering spots on the Web where kids go to chat about similar interests, from music to skateboarding to computer games. Increasingly, marketers are joining those conversations.
Tiger Electronics, a division of Hasbro, is hard at work promoting its new i-Cybie robotic dog, due to hit stores later this summer. To ensure that this virtual pup, which responds to voice commands, will be a holiday hit, Tiger executives regularly visit chat rooms and bulletin boards where toy and tech enthusiasts gather. Brian Rubash, manager for technical marketing at Tiger, discovered an i-Cybie-related newsgroup on Yahoo! and has regularly signed on to offer product news and answer questions.
What can a parent do about all this? Software, such as America Online's Parental Control program, and browser options, such as Surfmonkey.com, can keep kids from visiting sites you choose to block. But as ad messages become more closely woven into online entertainment and e-mail exchanges among friends, blocking becomes more difficult. "The No. 1 thing you want to have is the parent in the room," says Jupiter senior analyst Rachel Terrace (table).
Even if you're on top of the latest marketing ploys, be aware that more are coming online every day. Capitol Records is experimenting with an instant-messaging agent that spreads news and information about the rock band Radiohead. And teen retailer Alloy Online has launched a wireless news service that delivers content and house ads to cell-phone-toting teenage girls.
"The digital environment only gets more compelling for kids," says the Center for Media Education's Montgomery. Your job is to alert your kids to how marketers are making the most of it.
By Ellen Neuborne