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Digital Kids: MySpace blurs line between friends and flacks

If Life's "Mikey" cereal boy were around today, he?d probably have a faux profile on the Internet, thanks to "buzz" marketing.

The volume of advertising in MySpace and other social networks is expected to balloon in the next few years, and much of it could blur the lines between socializing, entertainment and marketing.

Kids are especially at risk, critics say, because as a thriving group on social networks, many younger teens are not sophisticated enough to treat with skepticism this new, seductive form of advertising. For example, marketers behind movie characters like "Superman" and products like Wendy's hamburgers pose as potential "friends" for kids to network with on MySpace.

For some consumer advocates, it begs the question: How will kids adapt and cope? And do social networks need to establish clear lines between commercial ads and members' editorial, just as search engines were forced years ago to demarcate their sponsored links? To see the full text of this article, click here.

"So that's very exploitable for marketers," she said.

What media experts fear now is that interactive games and viral marketing in social networks could carry an even deeper, lasting effect on kids.

"Because the blending of entertainment and marketing goals is so thoroughly blurry, it's even hard as adults to sort them out," said Hobbs.

"That blurring deepens kids' emotional identification with brands, especially for adolescents." At puberty, kids? identities in our consumer culture are tied up with what they have, what they possess, what they like, she added. ?When you layer entertainment values on that, people's emotional attachment to brands is stronger."

Certainly, advertising has a history of packing a punch with animated characters, music or peer influence. Many members of Generation X, a demographic born in the late '60s and early '70s, could easily recite decades-old brand messages like Life Cereal's "He likes it! Hey, Mikey!"

But interactivity adds something to the ad mix. Elizabeth Moore, associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame, said one of the issues with interactive marketing is that there is very little research on how it affects kids and teens. What researchers do know is that for children under 13, such advertising can be more harmful because they often don't have the critical thinking skills to untangle the play from the marketing. Kids age 13 and older are cognitively capable of knowing what they're looking at, but Moore said, when you embed a message with entertainment, it can be hard to disentangle.

"Because we so know little about how kids are responding, it's hard to know what the rules should be," said Moore.

This month, the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation released a study taking the first look at food marketing to children through online videos and so-called advergaming, which are games centered around products. According to the study, 38 percent of food Web sites, such as M&M's, encourage kids to buy products by requiring a purchase code to enter a game, for example. And only 18 percent of the sites include disclosures that clearly explain they are advertising.

Moore, author of the report, said she plans to research the effects on children.

Consumer advocates like Commercial Alert say "buzz marketing" like the ads appearing on social networking sites can be deceptive, intrusive and involve commercializing relationships. Last year, Commercial Alert on the Internet and other media.

A representative for the FTC said that as a policy it does not disclose its investigations, but it has not given any formal response to Commercial Alert's request yet. The representative did say that the agency's advertising rules apply the same way to any media, and those rules are designed to ensure ads are truthful and not misleading, nor causing harm to consumers.

Media literacy experts say parents need to be aware of advertising tactics online and try to educate their kids about ads. Posing questions to kids like, "Who is behind this game, video or message, and what is their motive?"

"We need to work harder to recognize the new strategies used to reach into their psyches," said Hobbs.