Selling chips by stealth: food marketing and the modern teen

Kids are bull*$#&@ detectors par excellence. It’s not easy to trick a tween or teen into buying a new kind of chips or chocolate bar just because some company or marketing agency says it’s awesome. They see it coming a mile away because they’ve been inundated with marketing images their entire lives and have become media savants. (If it’s free, now that’s another story. Free=good in my own kids’ estimation.)

But all this has just made marketers more sneaky. Consider PepsiCo subsidiary Frito Lay’s recent foray into online marketing aimed at teens. One of the video games they produced to push their chips is called Hotel 626. Only open between 6 pm and 6 am (“because everything’s scarier at night”), visitors to the site turn on their computer web cams, submit their cell numbers and enter a terrifying haunted hotel where they must sing a demon baby back to sleep, evade a chainsaw-wielding maniac, and visit a serial killer’s lair. There they discover a photo of themselves (taken by their own web cam, of course) hanging on a wire along with his other intended victims. At one point, their cell phone will ring and a freaky voice offers them directions out of the hotel. It probably goes without saying that there are Facebook and Twitter components of the experience, as well.

It’s terrifying and gruesome and teenagers love it—and love to send the link and photos, etc. to their friends. According to the company, it’s had more than 4 million visitors.

Considering the health and obesity crisis in North America, it’s almost overwhelmingly depressing to imagine how many bags of chips that translates into.

But last week, consumer groups lead by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog and The Praxis Project, filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission in the US saying PepsiCo’s digital techniques are deceptive. They defined three major ways that the campaigns are manipulating kids:

“Disguising its marketing efforts as entertaining videogames, concerts, and other “immersive” experiences, making it more difficult for teens to recognize such content as advertising;

Claiming to protect teen privacy while collecting a wide range of personal information, without meaningful notice and consent; and

Using viral marketing techniques that violate the FTC’s endorsement guidelines.”

I hope those (including some in the Obama administration) who believe food companies should “self-regulate” are watching this challenge and considering the evidence very carefully. If our elected officials don’t defend the rights of children to be free of such manipulation and invasion of privacy (not to mention support them to make healthy food choices when the alternative is so readily available and backed by gabillion-dollar marketing campaigns), who will?

Check out the challengers’ complaint (complete with video and more details about the various campaigns) here.

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