Marketing & Commercialism in Virtual Worlds

Commercials cause concern in the virtual Barbie world

By Jonathan Birchall in New York

Published: May 2 2008 03:00 | Last updated: May 2 2008 03:00 is going VIP. The website associated with Mattel’s Barbie dolls – the world’s most popular toy – is this month to introduce a paid subscription section, offering users access to an improved version of its virtual playground.

The site, launched just a year ago, allows users to create and dress their own online avatars, earning and using virtual “B Bucks” money. With more than 11m girls registered, BarbieGirls is about to turn into a new revenue source for Mattel. Chuck Scothon, head of Mattel’s girl brands, says the site is attracting girls in the eight-to-15 age group who may be outgrowing Barbie herself.

“The online world . . . and the content that girls engage with [is] very much a new toy,” he says. “This online content is a great way to play fashion and beauty and hair play, but doing it in a fun and relevant way for an older girl.”

The Barbie brand’s online makeover is one of the many signs of a developing boom in online worlds and social networking sites aimed at children as young as five, which spread to the toy industry three years ago. / Home UK / UK – Commercials cause concern in the virtual Barbie world

Here’s the part of the article that I thought was uber-interesting:

Companies are targeting ever younger children and there is a bigger push to get even preschoolers online and engaged in social networking sites and virtual worlds,” says Susan Linn, of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “While virtual worlds can be a creative endeavour for teenagers, there are real problems about their impact on younger children.”

In the US and elsewhere, public discussion of virtual worlds has been dominated by potential threats to children from sexual predators and from violent images in online games. The media and toy companies have responded with an emphasis on site safety, with limits on what messages a user’s avatar can send.

But Sara Grimes, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, says there has been very little attention paid to the commercialisation and marketing elements of digital play, including the collection of data that can be used for advertising linked to online behaviour. “It is easy to get distracted from these issues . . . The sites also play on that by promoting themselves as safe havens and tapping into parental concerns,” she says.

Last December the CCFC launched a letter-writing campaign against Ganz after its Webkinz site – previously free of advertisements – started carrying ads for DreamWorks’ Bee Movie and Fox’s Alvin and the Chipmunks . The advertising included offering children’s avatars virtual clothing such as bee suits and the hoodies worn by Alvin and his chipmunk friends.

Ganz now says it “recognises that some parents are against advertising, particularly those with very young children”, and “will very soon be adding the ability for parents to turn off ads from our promotional partners” – although not ads for its own products. It also says it will not allow the virtual products sold on its site to be branded by advertisers – a reference to the kind of immersive advertising techniques represented by the bee and chipmunk clothing.

Immersive techniques bump up against voluntary industry guidelines that require online advertising on children’s sites to be clearly marked as such, although the industry’s monitoring body says it has seen no cases in which its online guidelines have been breached.

Time Warner’s Cartoon Network children’s sites now launch with a general warning that the site has “pages and content that may include advertising”. Mattel’s Mr Scothon says carries no third-party advertising. But the site has promoted its own products, with girls able to visit an online cinema where they are rewarded with B Bucks for watching Barbie DVD film trailers.

As for similarly “immersive” third-party advertising, Mr Scothon says that “in the event we were ever to consider something like that – because the space is rapidly changing – we will make sure that any decisions we make are both validated and confirmed by both the parents and the children.”

Businesses have been gearing up on progressive trends (namely with entertainment & youth)
for some time now– focusing it’s ever present ‘Eye of Mordor’ on this market and staring it down to see if it falters or continues to grow, watching & testing & exploring… and now, it kinda has to notice itself.

Why? Because people are starting to take notice of this “eye of mordor”, grow weary of it, and react quickly/strongly to anything they feel gets too close to endangering their child.

Current parent-hating bad guy? Advertising. And while advertising happens everywhere in life– from comic books to billboards to coffee sleeves on morning lattes, to characters on shoes, to radio to saturday morning cartoons to milk cartons… virtual worlds for some reason = a separate set of rules & understandings.

Why? Because the hunt for obvious branding/advertising has been pointed at and poo-poo’ed, so now they’re getting less in-your-face, and more immersive, and that finger/poo-pooing hasn’t gone away.

Why? Because the web (virtual worlds, media online sites of entertainment, etc) is where people have a voice, it’s accessible to anyone with a comp and the net connection, and continually been prompted for every day life necessities. It’s like a mix of “PBS” and a grocery store. PBS is held to (and holds itself to) a difference set of criteria in content and attitude than other stations (you wouldn’t see hear Mr. Rogers’ Lady Elaine singing Spongebob‘s Plankton’s part to the ‘FUN’ song with edgy lyrics like “F is fire that burns down the whole town, U is for uranium… bomb, N is for no survivors” now would you?). Grocery stores have provisions that are necessary to exist in most lives. People don’t want you messing with things they need to know, need to have, need to move onward.

Third why – because advertising to younglings = an invasion to sensitive momma bears. Sensitive is not a bad thing some times… it just means they’re keenly aware of everything. But it also means that keen awareness can stir up a sharper tip of aggression that the “invasive” being intended.

Rattlesnake, rattle, hiker. Same kinda thing, except regarding younglings. Don’t even get NEAR… hear that rattle? Come a step further bub and I’ll BITE you.

Or at least this is often the sentiment I find online from awesome people willing to speak their mind about things that bother them. I respect those peeps and I understand their mentality. I do. But I am not on that bandwagon of anti-brand-immersion. Forgive me, but I’m not. Knowing that these environments cost a LOT of money (not just at first, but continuously– they’re living/thriving environments that need constant attention, supervision, and care), I understand the need for ulterior methods that do NOT cast higher fees onto the user.

To me, it’s the responsibility of the individual in CHARGE of the youngling minor to teach them the difference between idolizing brands, and recognizing brands. And really– to me, the important things to look for in virtual worlds are safety & quality of content/environment– is it fun? Do they get to play and explore? Are they free to be themselves in whatever storyline/epic adventure the virtual world/MMO has to offer? Those are the important things.

Now if it’s a straight up advertisement that completely breaks from the cohesiveness of the world? Sure, that’s bonkers because it’s diverting. Jarring. It moves you from the role play and exploration to a ‘what the…?‘ stop point. Like a period at the middle of a rich, filling sentence. I’m one for organic storytelling, organic world building. If it makes sense to have a Batman rollercoaster or Hannah Barbara stuffed animals at Six Flags, and it gives the public what they want– a good time and a product they trust… why not?

That’s why Stardoll is successful. They bring immersive brands into their existence, and people find what they want to explore their identity with those brands.

It’s about how the content is presented – but again, that’s my humble opinion. Does anyone else have a different one? Everyone is entitled to appreciate and expect different forms of “the best” and really– this post is just an educational outlet to see what exactly it is that people like, dislike about advertising, marketing, branding in these virtual environments.

Please, please speak up if you have a point to make, or a thought to share.

p.s. PROPS to Sara Grimes for her quote. Rock on girl!

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  1. May 6, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    I feel somewhat obliged to speak on this one… I am watching the continued concerns of many of the voices out there about the potential danger our children are faced with ever increasing brand immersion. And I have to say, like it or not, it’s coming.

    My approach to this is to watch and play with my children on a regular basis. When they are in Club Penguin, I plop in there with them and we sled race together. I even admit to grabbing their Webkinz account every once in a while and rearranging the furniture in their rooms. (For those of you that don’t do that-try it. Your kids will love it.)

    As you point out Izzy, these worlds are incredibly expensive to produce and maintain. Where appropriate, I would like some of the cost shifted towards advertisers and marketers. But, as you also pointed out, the brand engagement has to fit within the overall context of the community.

    If you look at how many brands have actually moved into marketing in the VW space you will find that there aren’t that many. There is still a tremendous amount of room to explore immersive and engaging activities which promote both brand affinity and the world’s storyline. We just need to look past the classic advertisement models and explore the areas which many of the brands are already promoting such as education, healthy eating, active lifestyles, etc.

    Had Webkinz brought a Disney campaign to their community which spoke to the subtler side of Alvin, such as the not-so-hidden tone of the movie that exploitation and commercialism are not all that great, the engagement with the Disney brand would have probably been accepted. I think it was the blatant usage of a virtual item to entice the participant to review an “at the box office soon” advertisement that struck a chord with the parental community. Although, I did get more than my share of waffles. 🙂

    There is certainly much more to explore in this area. I hope that there is a little bit of flexibility to try different avenues. Will there be mistakes? Sure. I just hope the pitchforks don’t come out to soon to chase away the evil monster. Good discussion Izzy!

  2. May 6, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Rock on, Robert. I agree – the Webkinz adver-genda was a unique strategy attempt. I have to say though– when others attempt new marketing strategies like this (ya know, “the test and see”, keep trying to see what is the best, etc), it sure does make one a bit gun shy when the anger/betrayal flows from the audience, right?

    I’m getting to be hyper sensitive. When someone around the office makes a remark about testing a pattern with the audience to see if they like it or not, I find myself hissing and withdrawing into the shadows like some frightened mutant victim.

    It’s a crazy task to ride that line between what makes everyone happy on both sides of the line. But I think you’re dead on right, Robert– it’s still a young frontier and lots of room for improvement on all angles. Thanks for speakin’ up!

  3. May 6, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    In my view, this is making a mountain out of a molehill. Most of the Virtual World space has always been a commercial endeavor. Webkinz, Neopets, Millberry, Multi-Player games, and BarbieGirls are at there very roots commercial and are designed to sell, and for parents to think that they are going to get or should get something else is fantasy.

    I am in the promotional advertising business, but I am also a father of six , and I can understand the protective instinct to not have advertising messages constantly pounded into our children without parental knowledge or consent. But I don’t become upset or offended when these VW properties try to generate another stream of revenue, because these are commercial ventures and I knew that going in. Frankly, I think most parents that allow their children participation in these environments aren’t concerned about submersive advertising.

    They are, however, concerned about the age appropriateness of the content. We have elected to substantially curtail the inbound, uncontrolled media in our home. We have no cable, dish or even rabbit ears, and most of our visual media comes on DVD which we have approved. Our children like VW experiences, particularly Millsberry (which is about as commercial as they come)and video games, but we limit it to just a couple times a week for limited periods.

    I am totally with this author that this is ultimately a parental responsibility, and that there are dozens of other more holistic and real ways to give our children the types of knowledge that these VW worlds offer.

  4. May 8, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Izzy, this is funny, because I was just recently thinking about something you said here before I read your post: would I be as adament about advertising if I didn’t have children? The answer, I think, is yes and no. I’ve never been a fan of advertising, but the vulnerability of children definately brings out the mommma bear in me.

    When it comes down to it, I’m amazed that so many people are passively accepting of marketing and advertsing in their lives (and media of all forms, I guess). I know I come across as a zealot, but it’s important for people to know that they do have a choice and that their worlds will not crumble — nor will they raise their kids to become social outcasts — if they choose not to participate.

    So many people have “advised” me that if I don’t like something, I just shouldn’t buy it — this usually as a way to tell me to shut up and quit spoiling everyone’s fun — but I’ve come to realize that they are right. I’m still going to advocate for others to join me.

    FWIW, I’d still rather pay a fee for a game/virtual world than play one for free with ads. That’s why most of our screen game time is spent with software we’ve purchased.

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