Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PepsiCo wants to “scare the crap” out of your kids

 The "chainsaw-wielding maniac" from Frito-Lay's online game.

PepsiCo has long been my poster child for food corporations whose actions speak louder than words when to comes to responsible marketing. CEO Indra Nooyi loves to tout the company's "Performance with Purpose" and show off the company's "good-for-you" foods that it gets to define. Most don't realize that PepsiCo is the nation's largest food company, with five divisions spanning from soda to salty snacks to breakfast cereals. With annual revenues of $60 billion and 285,000 employees, PepsiCo is an multinational corporate behemoth.

Now the company's true colors are revealed in all their twisted marketing glory. A legal complaint filed today with the Federal Trade Commission by the Center for Digital Democracy  and several other groups called upon the agency to investigate PepsiCo and its subsidiary Frito-­Lay for “engaging in deceptive and unfair digital marketing practices" in violation of federal law.

Even if you thought you already knew that teenagers were being targeted online by junk food brands, I can guarantee that the marketing strategies revealed in this complaint and accompanying report will freak you out, either as a parent or just a human being.

Among the clever techniques PepsiCo has deployed are horror video games called Hotel 626 and its even scarier successor, Asylum 626, which, the company's ad agency (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) explained, were designed to “scare the crap out of teenagers,” in the hopes of selling more Doritos.

The websites for these games were only available from 6pm to 6am (626 - get it?) because the agency explains: "We wanted people to visit the site at night, after hours, when guards are down and they are the most immersed in what could happen."

The purpose, according to the complaint, is to engage youth in a multi-­dimensional, interactive environment, using a variety of under-the-­radar techniques, each with increasing levels of creepiness. Teens registering on the site are asked to provide name, email, and date of birth, and to enable their webcam and microphone.

Then the game encourages teens to post and share photos of themselves as they participate; prompts them to “send a scare” to friends in their social networks and even required them to use their webcams, microphones, and mobile phones to “escape” the nightmarish experience.

These techniques are not just gross, they also happen to violate the law. As the press release explains, by "disguising its marketing efforts as entertaining video games," it's more difficult for teens to recognize such content as advertising (which of course is the whole idea). Also, PepsiCo claims "to protect teen privacy while collecting a wide range of personal information, without meaningful notice and consent."

As I was writing this (at 11pm) I decided to visit Asylum 626 myself. The music is the sound of a heartbeat, which I have to admit is already scary. The first screen warns the site is for "mature audiences only" and those "under age 18 must not view without an adult guardian" -- what a great marketing device for teens. The next screen helpfully explains that the experience is best viewed with my lights out and headphones on. Then, after showing off the brand with, "Doritos Presents," the site suggests that I log into Facebook or Twitter for the "full treatment experience." OK, now my heart is pounding along with the music and all I want to do is close the page. I can't even enter the damn thing I am so scared.

Obviously, this site is not intended for me. But by all accounts this campaign is a raging success with its target market, with the site getting millions of visitors. As noted by the ad agency: "The campaign was immensely successful. The two resurrected flavors sold out within three weeks." Bringing Doritos brands "back from from the dead" was the goal of the game. Nice marketing strategy: Scare kids, revive profits.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and long-time expert in digital marketing explains the problem: “PepsiCo has used an arsenal of powerful online marketing tactics in these campaigns, including interactive games with storylines designed to heighten arousal and instill fear and anxiety in teens."

As if teens don't have enough fears and anxiety as it is. “PepsiCo’s covert ad campaigns take advantage of teens’ vulnerabilities and encourage them to buy and consume a product that is harmful to their health,” added Angela Campbell, director of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, which drafted the complaint. She urged the FTC to begin its own investigation and act to prevent similarly deceptive advertising campaigns in the future.

Given the Obama Administration's reluctance to take on the food industry and its reliance instead on voluntary self-regulation, severe action doesn't seem too likely. Ironically, the feds recently announced it was backing off  the idea to include teens in its own food marketing guidelines. Bad timing. Because if this case doesn't convince government regulators to protect our kids from predatory marketing, nothing will.

Kudos to the groups bringing PepsiCo's disgusting marketing tactics to light. I highly recommend reading the documents they worked so hard on and watching the videos, if you can stomach it. (The most revealing details are in the complaint appendixes.) They should should be required reading / viewing for anyone who says we don't need government oversight, that self-regulation is working just fine, and we can leave it all up to parents.
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why do you "bother" living commercial-free?

This post was written by guest blogger Brandy King of Knowledge Linking. After spending the last eight years working with research on children and media, Brandy now faces the challenge of raising two young boys in our media-saturated and commercialized world.

After writing about my small victory over a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack last month, I got a lot of responses from other parents who are also trying to live commercial-free. But the other response I got was curiosity about "why I bother." My main reasons are below; what are yours?

Why do I bother trying to limit commercialized items in our family?

Creativity. It is often said that "play is a child's work." Children learn about the world through the toys they play with, the stories they create, and the playmates they engage with. The more a toy does on its own, the less imagination is required to make it fun. Many movie and TV-themed toys do it all for kids, leaving them with nothing to do but watch. To illustrate my point, here are some phrases from the description of a Cars2 Racetrack toy:

  • "Kids can now act out their favorite scenes from the movie" (instead of using their imagination to create entirely different adventures for the cars)
  • "Shake up your car, place it on the track, and watch it go" (instead of encouraging kinetic learning by zooming the cars around with their hands on road they made out of blocks)
  • "Vehicles will have their own specific engine sounds and phrases from the movie" (instead of actively using new vocabulary and learning how to engage in conversation by creating their own dialogue)
Creativity now trumps integrity and global thinking in being considered the most important leadership quality. And the recent death of visionary Steve Jobs brought to light how integral creativity was to his success in revolutionizing modern communication.

I want my children to have constant practice creating amazing stories and environments from scratch. I want them to learn for themselves that necessity is the mother of invention. I want them to rely on their own ambition to navigate through life rather than waiting for someone else to tell them what to do. And I believe that limiting the pre-defined personalities and scripts inherent in licensed characters helps them toward these ends.

Why do I bother writing about this experience?

Resisting commercial culture is a constant battle, and in fact, I think "commercial-free" is too generous a term for what I'm doing. My reality is more like "commercialism in moderation". Yes, I resisted that Thomas backpack, but I caved on the Thomas toothbrush to try to bring more motivation to dental hygiene. And while I have not purchased any toys with media tie-ins, I have let him keep some of the toys he has received as gifts. Is this hypocritical? Some may say yes. But in my mind, I can only do so much, and I feel that the effort I've put forth has already made a difference. For example, after getting his hands on a toy catalog, I was sure my 3 year old would start asking for things. Boy was I thrilled when he excitedly pointed to a toy and said "Mama, I bet we could make something like this!"

Parenting is not easy and most people do not want to add the additional challenge of living commercial-free in a media-saturated world. But you and I think it's a challenge worth the effort. I write about these experiences because it helps me identify where I've succeeded and where I am still being challenged.

I write about these experiences because I want to hear from other parents who've stayed the course: What strategies have worked? Where have you given in? Did it make a difference? Was it worth the effort? I invite you to comment below -- Let's keep the discussion going so that the sum of our ideas benefits all of our children.
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Channel One Promotes "Not Safe For School" Pics in Schools

If you're one of the 5.5 million students in a school with Channel One News, you have to watch ads every day as part of your taxpayer-funded class time. And one thing you'll see is ads for websites operated by Channel One's parent company, Alloy Media and Marketing. One of those websites is Despite the name, Channel One advertises to both its junior high and high school students. So I stopped by today to see what was being promoted to a captive audience of children as young as 11. Here's what's on the homepage:

Click on the link and it gets worse.There are the promised pics of Glee star Naya Rivera in various stages of undress, accompanied by some pathetic text designed to titillate while feigning shock:

Glee bad girl Santana Lopez wasn't lying when she said "Everyone knows my role here is to look hot." But in a recent spread for men's mag, FHM, Naya Rivera trumps her gleeky character's sexy outfits (remember the nurse costume?) by wearing, well... basically nothing! The girl's 24 years-old, so we'd say it's fine. But, is anyone else reminded of the controversial GQ photoshoot with Lea Michele, Dianna Agron and Cory Monteith? If it wasn't okay for them, then these pics definitely are pushin' it, too. Are Naya's pics too sexy for a Glee star? [Warning: They're all hot, but you probs shouldn't look at them at school and/or work!].

Huh? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I'm thinking if the pictures are not safe for school, then Channel One "probs" shouldn't be promoting in schools, either.

And if pictures of Ms. Rivera posing in her skimpy underwear isn't enough, tells kids where to head for more:

"Wanna see more scandalous Naya pics? Pick up the November issue of FHM today!"

Now some might argue that today's culture is so pornified that teenagers see images like these all the time, but that misses the point. Shouldn't the standard be higher for what is shown and promoted to children in classrooms? Remember, we're not talking about sex education designed by educators, but sex being used to sell kids to's advertisers (in this case K-Mart). Research links this type of sexualization to some of the most pressing and common mental health problems for girls including eating disorders, low self-esteem, depression and poor sexual health.

There is simply no justification for school districts forcing their students to watch ads for anything else on Channel One. Remember, schools with Channel One lose a full week of instructional time to the broadcasts and a day just to the ads! That's why so many schools are waking up to the fact that Channel One is a bad deal for students. Since 2005, the network's student audience has shrunk by more than 25%.

That's good news, but we shouldn't celebrate until every child's classroom is free of compulsory commercial viewing. So if you're the parent (or grandparent or sibling) of a middle or high school student, ask if his or her school has Channel One. If they do, share this post with that school's administrators and urge them to spend a few minutes on That alone should be enough to get the plug pulled on Channel One.
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