Will changes in the regulations regarding advertising to children affect online communication? Yes – but not in a way that benefits children. While communications to children in the offline world have come under pressure, the budgets and briefs have headed online. You only have to look at the number of websites created by cereal brands to see where the focus is going.
Digital communications allow brands to engage with children in a medium they like, while touching on this audience’s key emotional drivers, such as mastery and fantasy. It reaches kids in their own environment, usually without parental supervision or knowledge. No wonder it’s hard to resist. But this is a medium that both parents and politicians don’t fully understand and can’t properly police, which leaves the onus on the brands themselves and the online community to behave responsibly. Do they? Will they?
Ethically, brands should apply accepted marketing guidelines to all their marketing, regardless of the medium. But, as long as shareholder activism and the City call the shots, it will take a strong brand, with an even stronger leader, to do so. The message is not reaching far enough – certainly not to those with the subtly branded sites to target children, nor those that infiltrate chatrooms to discuss their brand.
But is policing the only solution? And what else can be done? The business community needs to make it wholly unacceptable for brands to behave in this way, and police itself accordingly. The words “in the spirit as well as to the letter” should be enforced. And each brand should have its own deontology – a code of practice regarding children – rather than rely on industry codes that seem more about protecting the industry’s reputation than protecting consumers.
All brands with an online presence need to re-evaluate their position in light of not just the new regulations, but also the new consumer mood and environment. It may take a while to get effective online regulation off the ground, but make no mistake, it will eventually take off.
Sheena Hogan, Kids Inc