Brands risk playing a losing game online

Mattel’s launch of the Barbie Girl online social network (MW last week) has ignited concerns over the early sexualisation of girls and added to fears that advertisers will exploit unregulated online media to target young audiences.

Online media opens up a host of practical and ethical dilemmas as young consumers gravitate away from traditional media such as TV to the internet and digital media. The Barbie Girls’ social network, aimed at girls as young as six years old, allows them to create virtual characters and participate in real-time chat with other registered users. Although the site breaks no official rules, critics are asking whether there should be more meticulous guidelines.

Nestlé and Richmond Food were last month accused of failing to follow the spirit of new Ofcom and Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) regulations on junk food advertising to children, which come into effect in July. The companies have rolled out a marketing campaign for ice-lolly brand Fab aimed at children which encourages parents to bond with children by visiting the Fab website myfabland.com together. Nestlé also set up a social networking site to target its teenage market.

No Monitor
There is little regulation of brand behaviour on the Web. Independent regulatory body The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) strictly monitors all forms of brand promotion targeted at children through TV, radio and print while CAP only last month announced new rules for food and soft drink product advertisements to children.

The ASA regulates paid-for-advertising on the internet, which encompasses pop-ups, viral advertising and commercial e-mail. However, everything else including company websites and online social networks, falls outside its remit and is labelled editorial content. Although the ASA is in discussions with Ofcom and the Advertising Association about tackling this issue, it still leaves vast leeway for companies to work around restrictions on traditional advertising channels by using websites and social networks.

However, corporations should not see this as free rein to exploit the deregulatory nature of the internet. ASA spokeswoman Donna Mitchell says many brands are perceived “safe” by the public and it would be potentially harmful to their images to advertise in non-regulated media.

Others consider digital media to be a successful advertising tool. Chris Seth, European managing director of Piczo, an online social network for teenagers, says the internet is no longer the domain of tech-geeks, and the right brand targeted at the right audience could easily have a positive impact online. However, he stresses the importance of responsibility and prohibits brands relating to alcohol, gambling and tobacco on the site.

Websites and social networks are more difficult to police than TV, and some experts warn that brands must be cautious when targeting children because of Britain’s increasing “blame culture”. Brandhouse planning director Warwick Cairns believes there has been a huge shift from parental responsibility to corporate and governmental. He says: “Mattel and other children’s brands have to be careful they don’t get blamed for encouraging all sorts of social and health problems caused by inactivity and less interaction with other people.”

Words hurt
One advantage of social networks is that they allow a brand’s chosen audience to communicate with each other. At best, this provides marketing from consumer to consumer, but it also permits users to criticise the product and company. Pupils in New Zealand recently humiliated one of the world’s biggest food and drinks companies by testing Ribena for levels of vitamin C – to discover it contained a mere trace.

JupiterResearch senior analyst Nate Elliott questions the reasoning behind a company setting up its own social network. He says few are successful because it is difficult to attract and keep consumers on the site. “To be successful, the network has to be more than about the product, it has to come up with a talking point to engage consumers, so I doubt if Barbie Girls’ site will be successful. It needs more than just Barbie.” In the light of this, companies should think twice about risking their reputations by using not only a barely regulated advertising medium but one that comes with questionable success.

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