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Web Battle

The digital revolution has increased opportunities for advertisers to target children with junk-food promotions.
Patricia Edgar, June 11, 2009

BY ANY measure, self-regulation of junk-food advertising by the industry in the public interest has been a monumental failure. Shrek promotes the Belly Bulge Combo (M&Ms, Coke and popcorn) and kids expand to match him.

The health industry and children's lobbyists, now armed with evidence and reports, are calling for reform of the junk-food industries after more than a decade of inaction by governments. But the battle is on a much broader front than anticipated.

The food and beverage industries have followed children from television into a technological haven of social networks, instant messaging, interactive games, mobile phones and virtual three-dimensional environments, which teenagers have colonised and made their own.

Exciting new opportunities for the advertising industry lie in this digital marketplace. Marketers are observing, monitoring and analysing teenagers' media use to target their needs and weaknesses as never before. The food and beverage companies — Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Kraft, Burger King, Pepsi, KFC — are major players in this process.

The next edition of Journal of Adolescent Health in the US reports an article by Kathryn Montgomery and Jeff Chester, "Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting adolescents in the Digital Age", which draws together findings from 180 studies and reports, all conducted in recent years, to describe the digital marketing strategies being used to track "cyber-teens" — 13-17-year-olds. It's a wake-up call.

Teenagers are digital natives and while they are drawn to these new technologies they are also shaping their use for the future. Initiatives being tested in cyberspace are combining research from a broad range of disciplines including semantics, artificial intelligence, auction theory, social network and behavioural analysis, data mining and statistical modelling.

New mobile marketing strategies take advantage of young people's multi-tasking and constant connectivity through technology to target teenagers directly with electronic pitches, based on their personal profiles, which they will have supplied.

Young people have become used to creating individual play-lists on an MP3 player, a profile on a social networking site, or designing an avatar to represent them in a virtual world. They share personal information with their cyber friends thus creating a resource advertisers could never have dreamed of

20 years ago. MySpace already can offer its advertising clients a detailed profile of each user (and their friends). Web 2 platforms are a gift to marketers as online monitoring can identify the most influential person in a social network and even their psychological state of mind.

Food companies are collaborating with neuroscientists and the US Advertising Research Foundation to understand the brain's role in triggering emotions, thoughts and actions and how specific patterns of brain activation predict purchasing. There are already 90 private neuromarketing research firms in the US using methods such as eye-tracking, galvanic skin response, and electroencephalography to design advertising capable of fostering emotional and unconscious choices rather than reasoned thoughtful decisions.

It is likely such techniques will be highly effective for marketing within interactive games, which are receiving special attention as the fastest growing form of entertainment. Ads are being incorporated into game storylines and the game programmed to respond to a player's actions in real time, changing, adding or updating messages to tailor their appeal to that particular individual. Coca-Cola has established a presence in Second Life where Coke vending machines can be seen dotting the landscape of the highly popular three-dimensional virtual world.

User-generated content too is one of the fastest-growing forms of content on the internet, offering unique opportunities for advertisers. More than half of all online teens are creating content for the web. Marketing strategies are being designed to tap into the pool of young creative talent eager to offer their services for free to produce commercial spots for food companies sponsoring contests.

Entrants submit their videos on YouTube, ensuring they will be seen by thousands of viewers whether or not they win and the content produced, apart from directly marketing a product, yields insight into consumer attitudes and feelings. Google has introduced an algorithm that can predict which videos are about to go viral. The system then invites advertisers to target their ads to those videos poised to become popular on YouTube.

While still a fairly modest percentage of the overall advertising expenditures of food companies, online marketing becomes highly effective and efficient targeted marketing, which is inexpensive to implement.

In the '70s, research concluded that children younger than seven or eight lacked the cognitive ability to understand advertising's persuasive intent and could be enticed by people they admired — even cartoon characters — to pester their parents to buy. Lobbyists are still arguing for a ban on celebrity endorsements to be enforced 30 years on (The Age, 9/6). That visible problem is the tip of the iceberg now.

The view that adolescents can resist advertising more effectively than younger children is being challenged by research showing the brain does not fully mature until late adolescence. As children reach puberty, hormonal changes can lead to impulsive behaviour, negative mood swings, use of addictive products and engagement in thrill-seeking experiences. In light of the sophistication of marketing strategies, teenage users could be as vulnerable as their younger siblings.

What a tragedy it is that all this research and expenditure is applied to selling products that put children at risk, while education and schools are light years behind the commercial world in applying science and new forms of technology to children's learning.

Dr Patricia Edgar is a sociologist, author, and media policy expert. Her latest book is The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups.