Business’s Eye of Mordor is on your Children

Although virtual environments are still at an early stage in development and adoption, many companies are already dabbling in one or more virtual worlds or closely observing them prior to getting their feet wet.

Auto maker Toyota is already using virtual worlds as a way to get preteens and teenagers interested in its Scion entry-level car brand, which is targeted at younger buyers.

“We’ve made a fairly significant six-figure investment in virtual communities across different worlds,” said Adrian Si, interactive marketing manager for Scion at Toyota. For instance, Toyota is the exclusive supplier of virtual Scion cars in Numedeon’s Whyville educational virtual world for children aged 8 to 15 and provides them with information about car financing.

Tweens are already thinking about what car they might buy, and Toyota hopes that giving them a positive experience with its cars in virtual worlds might translate into them or their parents buying vehicles from the vendor down the road. Good buzz about a product can go a long way, Si believes.

Only a few years old, Toyota’s Scion brand is one with which the company can afford to take risks that the auto maker couldn’t with its other much more established brands, Si said. Toyota got interested in virtual worlds at the same time that the companies behind such communities were coming to the auto maker to see if it was interested in funding them.
As well as Whyville, Toyota is promoting its Scion brand in Linden Research’s Second Life and is about to do the same in Gaia Interactive’s Gaia Online teen virtual world.

PepsiCo has yet to experiment with virtual worlds, but is keeping an eye on the space.  “We’re intrigued by it and are actively monitoring it,” said Julius Akinyemi, director of emerging technologies at the beverage and snack vendor. Like Toyota, PepsiCo is particularly attracted by how much input users have in creating their virtual environments and the ability to directly interface with and influence those individuals.

One area where PepsiCo thinks it might look to engage with the residents of virtual worlds is in soliciting their input on new products, according to Akinyemi. The vendor would hope to do more codevelopment of new beverages and snacks as well as create quick marketing buzz on new offerings, he said. There need to be more tools available in virtual worlds to make such development and marketing efforts easier, Akinyemi noted, along with a general move to simplify the process for anyone to enter any virtual environment.

Building bridges between the real world and virtual environments will become increasingly important in guaranteeing a successful virtual presence for a company, IBM’s Kearney said. She pointed to what the Ganz gift company has done with its popular Webkinz plush toys. Children who own one of the toys receive a code to enter the Webkinz virtual world where they can play with a virtual version of the real-world toy.

Businesses experimenting with virtual worlds | InfoWorld | News | 2007-06-18 | By China Martens, IDG News Service

Wow. Hmm. I can’t decide if it’s creepy they’re looking to make your children more interested in consumerism (children: you must start NOW in preparing to buy that first car… ingore the fact you’re only 9! Buy Buy Buy! All the cool kids are doing it), or if it’s genius that they’re educating the youth about responsible future spending & economic tips to success.

But do you really want biased education in regards to your child’s finances? Seems like it could be a quick slope to that kind of interaction.

Those web-playgrounds (communities, virtual worlds, networking platforms) MUST make money some how to stay afloat (U13 is a difficult age group to scale in terms of moderation & protection, therefore need some overhead to get the proper staff/facilities, etc). So I understand the need to integrate branding & licensing into the system (heck, I work for a branded site, I know all of this far too well).

Again, perhaps it’s just the article & the way it was presented which makes me feel like the wolves are circling. “We’re watching…” Yikes. Gives me the creeps to be quite honest.

There’s this split I see forming in Social Networks/Communities/worlds (I’m not saying it’s happened yet… but it could be on the horizon):

Side a) Branding of a community for the sake of community. Let the community tell you what they want. Listen to the people who support your brand. Let the audience interact with your product and show you the light. Build an army/following/society around your brand, and support them as they support you. It’s kind of what Threadless (t-shirt/design social network) did. I think flip.com‘s technique for advertising works too (letting the flip.com kids choose what they’d like to have advertised– and the advertisements are provided in such a way as they’re interesting and effective).

side b) Branding of a community for the sake of business. Provide certain “benefits” or “treats” to lure the population to your brand within a social network, gain their trust, then slyly encourage “social pressures” to get a pop culture-like feel (buying for the sake of buying, not because you want it, but because everyone already has it), and thus world domination for a secret dicatorship. Like, if you pile a bunch of goodies in the middle of a clearing, the vultures can sit on the tree tops, watch what the critters like to eat, which bits & pieces the critters like the most– which brings in the plumper/more eager critters, and devise a plan of attack– letting the vultures reap the benefits of their little trap. Ooo, that sounds harsh doesn’t it? Well… yes, it does. Again– Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” rears it’s bald head.

(recap: the witches want the children, but how do you get children? Well, children like chocolate. Witches stick a potion in the chocolate. Lure the children to the chocolate. Children digest chocolate, and thus take the potion. Witches get what they want. Children think they’re getting what they want, but in the end– end up mice. And what happens to mice? They get destroyed)

Mmmm.

I’m probably just over-reacting again. Could happen. Regardless, my yellow flag is momentarily raised, so I decided to ramble about it. What dost thou think?

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  1. June 18, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    My flag is raised as well – I cringe at the thought of this type of no-holds-barred targeting of kids, combined with a constant surveillance/monitoring of their opinions and behaviours for the sole purpose of making even more effective ads and marketing ventures to target at them…not to mention mega-companies who use the word “teach” to describe their marketing-to-kids practices.

  2. June 18, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    Hi all,

    Thought I would chime in as the founder, CEO and principle owner of Whyville.net. For sure, a business needs to be able to make money to survive — however, I would like to propose a different take on option A – business for the sake of the community — which is REALLY For the sake of the community — and that happens when education becomes a significant driver.

    here is a recent podcast on this subject you might find interesting:

    http://internetmarketingvoodoo.com/2007/01/imv40-advertising-in-virtual.html

    If you drill down into the Toyota activities on Whyville, you will find that they started with a car dealership, with kids tricking out their cars (you do have to buckle your seat belts to take your friends on a ride). Next phase – Toyota Financial Services, where kids learn about credit scores in order to buy cars on credit (don’t make your payments, foreclosure). If you have the time (and Whyville is free) look at how the credit score system is set up in Whyville — I think you will find it interesting. Next, and soon to launch, we bring automotive engineering to Whyville, with support from Toyota. Kids will be able to pull cars apart and rebuild them, to understand how they work, and how they are engineered. Now, for sure, Toyota believes that it is in its best interest to have kids understand the engineering behind their cars — but the point is that every new Whyville project with Toyota involves greater educational value for our kids.

    Wouldn’t it be an interesting world if the most effective marketing was done by businesses with products that can bear this kind of scrutiny? How would that change the market? How would that change products?

    So, I agree, actually, that there is a lot of opportunity for abuse of branding in virtual worlds — and I also agree that this is a powerful new way to market — however, we believe that it is interaction with the product with a strong cross over to learning, rather than a carefully controlled superficial branding, that is going to get the most ‘eyeballs connected to brains’. We also believe that this is the metric, going forward, that the Internet is uniquies suited to deliver, and that companies are going to want.

    Toyota (and Whyville) are clearly in the lead in that regard. And stayed tuned for even cooler (and more educational) stuff to come.

    Ps. with respect to chocolate and mice in particular, you might want to look at the Whyeats project in Whyville — where kids have to eat healthy or get scurvy. Sure you can eat only chocolate, but if you do, you get acne. 🙂

    Jim Bower
    CEO
    Numedeon Inc.
    Founders of Whyville.net

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