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  Ad-Creep In Kiddie-Worlds  
Posted 2007-12-15 by Tony Walsh
American watchdog group Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood isn't happy with how popular kiddie-world Webkinz has begun running external ads atop its already-commercial service. According to, "A current Webkinz campaign is promoting the film Alvin and the Chipmunks (screen shot at left), while similar ads ran for the recent Bee Movie." Virtual Worlds News reports that Ganz, maker of Webkinz has since pulled one of the ads, although it's not clear to me if this is a response to public pressure.

The ethics of advertising to children aside, Ganz's choice to blast ads at kids whose parents are already paying for Webkinz access comes off like a crass cash-grab . It's the same story with in-game ads found in many of today's video games--the consumer isn't sharing in the publisher's increased cash-flow. A more reasonable approach to advertising via Webkinz (again, irrespective of the ethical issues) would be to offer a discounted or free service in exchange for client-side ads.

Earlier this year, Disney-operated kiddie world Toontown switched from a subscription model to ad-supported model, which seems reasonable enough if you forget about the fact that the kids using Toontown aren't old enough to be trusted to chat safely using the service.

In the United Kingdom, the Advertising Standards Authority has lowered advertising standardsso that brands may target kids in places like commercial virtual worlds. The American Psychological Association had an anti-advertising stance as of at least 2004, stating "children under the age of eight are unable to critically comprehend televised advertising messages and are prone to accept advertiser messages as truthful, accurate and unbiased." I'm not sure how the APA sees virtual-world ads aimed at kids, but I suspect the association isn't keen on any advertising to young children.

Given the APA's stance, it boggles my mind that Ganz or any other kiddie-world-maker would take an advertise-to-kids strategy. Perhaps Ganz is simply following the lead of Numedeon's Whyville, where "edutisements" are considered fuel for impressionable kids. Numedeon seems to think six-year-olds are capable of making informed consumer choices, despite what a nationwide group of domestic scientists say.

I've recently become a first-time father, and I'm looking forward to my daughter being able to experience ad-free virtual worlds. I can only hope by the time she's in elementary school, the industry has cleaned up its act.
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Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 17, 2007 @ 11:05 am
Oh teh noes! Advertising to kids!

i just HAD to jump in here, having worked on an ad-supported MMOG targeted at kids (all the while twirling my moustache and cackling maniacally).

When we were researching other worlds, i was a little surprised to see joints like Club Penguin (the current kiddie MMO leader) railing against ad supported worlds. Here's what you can do with their product:

1. Sign up for a free Club Penguin account
2. Tell the game you're over 16 years old
3. Enjoy free, unbridled, unmoderated chat

Club Penguin claims their chat system is adequately logged and moderated. With millions of kids playing every day and not nearly that many employees, i don't know how they could say that.

We were able to sign up for an account, jump into the game, and say "i live at 1234 Fake Street. Come give me bad touches." No magical Moderation Fairy appeared to protect us.

i'm also recent first-time father. i'm looking forward to *exposing* my two-year-old to advertising so that i can teach her a vital life skill: bullshit detection. It's one of the most important tools my mom gave me. It saves a person so much disappointment in life, all the way from "Drink more Ovaltine" to "Help me - my name is Mbutu N'Gai from Nigeria and i need to transfer money through your bank account."
Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
December 18, 2007 @ 3:24 pm
While i agree that "inoculating" your children - teaching them "bullshit detection" - is a key part of preparing them for the world-at-large, they have to be old enough to understand what is being done to them. Before a certain age, they simply are not able to differentiate or understand what they are seeing, in the sense of being advertised too. This is, i think, the danger that the quote in Tony's piece by the APA is getting at. And the part about advertising to young children that causes the most concern for me.

As to what other MMO offer in terms of "moderation" for their chat/interactions, i haven't spent any time researching. What did your (RyanHensonCreighton) product to prevent the kind of interactions you saw in Club Penguin?
Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 18, 2007 @ 5:43 pm
The game used a canned chat system whereby the players could only select chat phrases from a canned list. This basically sucks if you're the player. The company went that direction to avoid legal scuffles. i'm not sure what the best option is. Canned chat is like telling your kid "okay, you can go to the museum, but ONLY IF THERE'S NO ONE ELSE IN THE BUILDING". It's unrealistic. i'd rather have my kid in an unmoderated, open chat world and breath down her neck rather than have her suffer through a lame duck canned chat experience.

(For example, in Club Penguin, you can ask "What's your favourite movie" through their under-13 canned chat, and your response options include "sci-fi" and "action". Raaaame.)

i advocate the village raising the child when it coms to preventing kids from accessing cigarettes, drugs and porn. But when it comes to advertising, i'm going to do for me and mine, and society be damned. If some kid with a lousy home life grows up believing that Fruit Roll-Ups give him magical powers and that slot car racetracks are actually fun, then so be it.

There's only so much i can do to keep the rest of this world from growing up ignorant. At least my daughter will know her ass from her elbow.

(And, by the bye, if you don't condone advertising to children because it amount to lies the blue the boundary between fantasy and reality, reconsider telling your kids that a fat man in a red suit delivers presents to them through the chimney every year. You can't rail against young kids' impressionable natures on one hand, and exploit it the next.)

(and by "you", i don't mean the last commenter ... i mean YOU, Western society :)
Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
December 18, 2007 @ 5:59 pm
Yep, the canned chat is a pretty poor solution. I too would rather be involved in my child's online activites, rather then trust the developers to look out for my kids.

My reasons for not condoning advertising to children have little to do with the "truth-in-advertising" view, personally. I have no problem allowing/encouraging a belief in Santa, while finding advertising to young children distasteful. And to your "exploiting" "young kids' impressionable nature" argument, i'd say, and YMMV, that there is a bit of a difference between Santa/Christmas (theoretically, teaching about giving and hope and joy etc etc not blatant materialistic consumerism), and a corporations single purpose, to expand profits for shareholders by whatever means (up to and, sometimes, beyond the rule of law), without regard to moral and/or ethical behaviour. (Please take all the above with a grain of salt - i've over simplifying for the sake of the argument)

If i was really feeling inflammatory, i could also pull out the whole question of belief in a deity which requires faith, and what your take on God might be, and what you are going to teach your kids wrt that, but that would be stepping over the line into flame-bait, so i won't go there! :) And by you i mean both _you_ and western society. ;)

Trying to bring things back towards the original topic - do you think there is any way one could create a safe chat space for young kids? One that doesn't involve direct parental support? I guess both of our arguments are that we'd _want_ that involvement, but as a thought experiment, can you think of a way that doesn't suck?
Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 18, 2007 @ 6:49 pm
Heh ... the whole reason i'm not telling my daughter the Santa Claus lie is because of my belief in God. i don't want to have to say to her when she's twelve "okay, look: fat man with flying reindeer magically bending time and delivering gifts all over the world? Lie. Thin man born of a virgin magically healing the sick and coming back from the dead? Still true." :)

The wholesomeness of Santa is fine (though, who are we kidding? Santa's all about GREED, baby! Ask any 7-year-old.) i think it's fine to talk of Santa as a fable, and it's fine to tell his stories and to speak of giving. But why pretend, to your dying day or until your child grows armpit hair (or whichever comes first) that Santa is real? i see no point to it. You can still experience all the joy that Santa brings without lying to your kids.

And if i knew the answer to the question of a safe online environment for kids, be sure the game i worked on for two years would have had that feature. My gut says it's not possible, just as i don't think it's possible to protect your kids from a myriad other sources.

And in what way would a guaranteed kids-only chat room be safe? Remember that kids are sponges, and some of these sponges soak all day in some pretty filthy water. If you put your clean sponge in a room with dirty sponges, she's bound to come out with a little grime on her. It's nothing compared to being lured into some creep's van for fancy touches, but it's all part and parcel of the slow, steady pace of corruption that parents battle against.

As i mentioned, i want to equip my daughter with the tools to process the corrupting influences through the filter of Christianity. (Waiting for you to predictably cry "indoctrination")

For what it's worth, i saw a Birk's ad for a metal watch. The slogan said "It gives more weight to my handshake." Forget young, impressionable kids - there are plenty of grown-ups who get suckered into that nonsense too.
Comment posted by Jos 'Hyakugei' Yule
December 19, 2007 @ 10:34 am
(FYI, i'm not touching the religious angle, way to easy to slide into flaming range, and this has been such a pleasant conversation so far, i don't want to ruin it!)

Regarding the "pretend until your dying day", that seems a bit extreme. I would then ask you if you give the full truth to your child about all the things they might ask, or do you "water it down" for them? This could be considered lying, which you seem to be trying to explicitly avoid. While i agree that lying is, in general, a negative thing, and you don't want to model that kind of behaviour to your children, there is also the reality that kids are, well, kids. Protecting them and giving them a safe space to grow, physically, mentally and emotionally is key. The trick is to know when they are ready for certain kinds of information. And that is the thing that, i think, most people argue about. When, what and why to make clear to kids. I can only talk about what i think is appropriate for my kids, and i can't pretend that i've got all the right answers at the right times - each kid is different, as is each parent.

Yep, i realize that its pretty much a lost cause, trying to create a "safe" (whatever that loaded term might mean) chat/moo/virtual space for young kids - one where you don't have to have any parental oversight.

Of course adults get influenced by advertising! Do you think they would spend billions of dollars on it if it didn't work? We are _all_ influenced by it, regardless of how hard we work to remain above it. I agree that the more you are aware, the better you are at being able to understand what is being done to you, and make more rational decisions about your purchases. Although we are all libel to make emotional decisions, from time to time. Sometimes more frequently then others! :)

I think this thread is verging more and more into a parenting discussion, so i'm going to hang up my pen at this point! Not a bad thing, but i get so worried about making sure my points are clear and not going to cause some kind of flame-up that my stress levels are going up ;).
Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 19, 2007 @ 11:42 am
Oh, poo. What's an online discussion without a bit of flamy ranting?

"Dying day" - i'm talking about cases where kids begin to stoke their own bullshit detectors and say, skeptically, "Dad, is Santa Claus *really* real? Because i don't think he is." Then dad feels all guilty and says "Yes! Yes, he sure is!" Parents don't confess the lie until jr. is "old enough" to understand the kind of world where all the adults constantly lie to or withhold information from all the kids.

That brings us, naturaly, to sex. In my opinion, gone are the days when you can let nature take its course and allow your kids to discover the - ahem - "ins and outs" of sex on their own. When i was 8, some of us found an old OUI skin magazine from the 70s, and some of the ladies inside showed their boobies. Today, eight year olds can turn on the teevee and see pornographers filming female ejaculation scenes.

i'm a youth pastor. i recently talked with the guys in the youth group about sex and pornography, and something became abundantly clear to me: responsible adults need to tell kids about sex, drugs and rock n' roll NOW, perhaps even *before* they're (as you say) ready. These days, their initiation to these topics without your intervention will most likely be false, ugly, and dangerous.

You're right, though ... Clickable Culture this ain't. i'll catch you when Tony incites the next flame riot.
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