Besides the marketing and privacy aspects connected with advergames and virtual worlds, adults should also be aware of what these sites are trying to “sell” to kids. Food advertisers are increasingly turning to the Web to target young people. It is now the fastest growing venue for food marketers – in 2006, American food and beverage companies spent $77 million marketing their products to youth online.
With increasing pressure to ban or limit unhealthy food advertising to kids in traditional media, such as broadcasting and print, marketers are working hard to engage youth online, away from the mediating influence of their parents. For example, Candystand.com, a favorite with Canadian kids, features over 100 advergames – many focusing on candy and junk food.
There is also nothing to stop under-aged youth from visiting websites for alcohol brands – all they have to do is select a legal drinking age to log in. Concerns have been raised over the past decade on how some alcohol and beer companies actively solicit youth online through immersive websites that glamorize drinking and build brand loyalty at a young age.
Traditionally alcohol companies have focused their marketing efforts to TV, but in recent years there has been a noticeable shift away from TV in favour of the Internet and social media. For example: Bacardi has at least seven Facebook pages that together claim some 1.7 million fans and, in addition to its own Facebook pages, Captain Morgan Rum promotes a video game app for iPhones[i]
It’s important to help young people distinguish between what they can do for free in online playgrounds, and what they have to pay for. Many sites offer their basic content at no cost but make users pay to access richer content. Sometimes access to the whole content comes with a subscription: for instance, in Club Penguin you can play the basic game for free, but if you want to have your own igloo to decorate you need to subscribe. In other cases the added content comes as fee-for-service: for example, some free online games charge you for special items such as weapons. The competitive nature of gaming sites can be very powerful, making it hard to resist paying for what was supposed to be a free experience. Social media games such as Farmville allow you to buy things which you would otherwise have to earn through constant play and players are pressured to spend money to keep up with their friends who are doing the same.
As we’ve seen in previous sections, privacy concerns go hand-in-hand with marketing. When players play on Miniclip or Neopets, for instance, they can ‘Challenge a friend’ or ‘share the game’ via email – not realizing they are giving away their friends’ information in the process. With this in mind, it is important to start good privacy protection habits early on so children will make wise decisions about their personal information when they graduate to social networking sites like Facebook.
In virtual worlds, online surveys that children are enticed to complete by rewarding them with points reinforce the notion that sharing information online is a fun and harmless activity.
Parents and teachers need to help young people understand that personal information has value and should not be disclosed indiscriminately. (For more information, visit our Privacy section.)
Endorsements on Social Networking
For many bloggers, YouTube creators and celebrities on social networks, endorsing products and services is an important source of revenue. Unfortunately, young people aren’t always aware that these endorsements are a kind of advertising.
Changes to the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards made in 2016, and similar rules put in place in other countries, require anyone making a paid endorsement to be clear about the nature of the endorsement and who’s paying for it.
Advertising Standards Canada published an Interpretation Guideline to the new rules that make it clear what “digital influencers” have to behave:
A testimonial, endorsement, review or other representation must disclose any ‘material connection’ between the endorser, reviewer, influencer or person making the representation and the ‘entity’… that makes the product or service available to the endorser, reviewer, influencer or person making the representation, except when that material connection is one that consumers would reasonably expect to exists, e.g. a television advertisement in which a celebrity publicly endorses a product or service. If such a material connection exists, that fact and the nature of the material connection must be clearly and prominently disclosed in close proximity to the representation about the product or service.
Despite these rules and guidelines, it’s still very easy for kids to mistake a paid endorsement for a review of just a friend’s opinion, especially when the “influencers” are seen as regular people and not celebrities. It’s important to make sure they know that many of the “reviews” and product recommendations online are really ads, and that they need to view them as critically as any other kind of advertising.
 Michael Doyle. “US to review online marketing of beer, liquor and wine.” Miami Herald. 05/01/12. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/01/2778099/us-to-review-online-marketing.html