Magazine Feature

Marketing to Children: The Fine Line between Ethical and Exploitative

Elais and Malachy – seven-year-old twins – are captains leading massive armies through coordinated attacks and lightning fast commands. Each boy skillfully guides hundreds of men triumphantly into battle and onward toward victory. In the midst of a raging war, they send forth barbarians, knights and wizards to destroy their enemy’s strong hold, a dangerous but ultimately successful maneuver as they claim themselves victors of the battlefield.

This story is not one of folklore, nor is it a story written by a new young adult fiction writer, but rather is a typical scene of a child playing the massively successful mobile game Clash of Clans. This free game is extremely widespread, having an active player base of 100 million around the world and a fierce competitive scene touting a $1 million dollar prize pool for their most recent competition. The casual player of Clash of Clans is often children and most parents are happy to let their children play these  so-called “free-to-play” games, they unaware of the risk that micro-transactions pose to young, unaware kids.

While Elias and Malachy were busy upgrading their characters, raking in gold and growing their empire, their mother Paula was blissfully unaware of the $3,000 bill that these micro-transactions racked up.

Though Clash of Clans is technically free-to-play game, there are several ways to spend money in the game. This mainly comes in the form of purchasing gems, the largest pack of which costs $99.99. Even scarier is that to purchase these, it takes only four to five clicks from the main screen of the game and if a credit card is already linked to the account, it is automatically charged.

When perusing the app myself while researching, I nearly spend money without realizing it due to the sheer simplicity of the transaction. So for a pair of unaware seven-year-old twins who want gems to upgrade their characters, spending $3,000 over the course of a few hours is far too easy.

This is not an isolated incident either, with examples of other children having spent $4,300 in Tiny Monsters, $12,000 in Dragon City, and a whopping $46,000 in Game of War. News headlines have told time and time again of children spending thousands of dollars in these mobile games while unaware parents have to deal with the fallout from these in-app purchases, some just as easy as the click of a button. Even notable celebrities like Jack Black have dealt with this issue, but most parents are not rich movie stars, and a transaction this large could be devastating.

But who is to blame here, is it the kids, the parents or the companies themselves?

Though these examples are restricted to just mobile apps, they show how risky the process of marketing to kids is and how, without proper supervision, businesses can take advantage of children (and their parents money) as part of their business model. Though parents should supervise their children and monitor what they spend their money on, it is ultimately the company’s responsibility to ensure their marketing to children is ethical.

Marketing is not new. There have always been products to sell and in order to sell product, one must market it to potential buyers. From ancient Egyptians creating steel carvings to advertise their goods, to the first ever TV advertisement in 1941 depicting a still image and a single narrated line, advertising has been around for hundreds or even thousands of years and certainly is not going anywhere anytime soon. However, the nature advertisements has certainly changed over the years, as well as what is being sold. The quest for effective marketing strategies has been the staple of every business attempting to sell something, and the process of marketing has evolved over the years to include both expansions upon and replacements of traditional methods.

Advertising is no laughing matter either; it is often how companies can sustain a business model. More recently, marketing has become a huge source of monetary gain, with worldwide spending on advertisements estimated at $630 billion for 2018, making its importance all the more clear, financially speaking.

Yet, the forms that it can take are widely variable. From TV adverts, to individualized sections in the newspapers, to personalized ads on the side of almost every website you visit, in the modern age it is hard to escape the sight of an advertisement. In fact, the internet has become one of the main sources of advertising in general. Some of the largest consumers of ads are the tech-savvy young generation, who could see up to 3000 ads in one day.

So what is wrong with marketing to kids then? Nothing inherently, so long as it is done correctly. However, this is extremely subjective rule and often times what one company deems is appropriate, may not be considered so by parents whose money is directly at stake, or the government whose job is to create, regulate and enforce advertising laws. The issue here is in the subjectivity of ethics and the lack of discernibility in children when it comes to deceptive and manipulative advertising.

Very young children have little to no concept of the value of money, often, for example, choosing a nickel over a dime just because of its larger size. As children age, they learn more about how money works and what it means to buy something, but it is highly unlikely that a nine-year-old fully grasps the concept of credit card debt.

Without a proper understanding of the value of money, children can easily be manipulated into unknowingly spending hundreds of dollars from their parent’s bank accounts. They may also not understand why mommy is saying no, when all you have to do is swipe the blue card and you can get anything for free. This may cause anger to ensue if a child continues to beg for an item that simply cannot be afforded.

This is not limited to young children either. Teen’s brains have been shown to be very malleable, often times acting without thinking – a prime target for a quick advertisement to lure in. Recently in fact, the E-cigarette company Juul was under legal fire when they were accused of falsely marketing their vaping devices as safe so that many teens would purchase them without knowing the potential dangers involved. If a developed teen can be manipulated into buying a potentially dangerous device, how easy would it be for a company to manipulate an even younger child into buying products instead? Sure they would often times have to go through their parents, but many parents may not understand the idea of V-Bucks in Fortnite (another popular game among kids) and may just give into the child’s pressure.

Alternatively, this could cause stress on the part of the parent, who would repeatedly have to tell their child no. This can be straining, both for a parent who wants the best for the child, as well as the children who may resent their parent for the continual denial of what they want. There are ways to prevent spoiling your children while keeping your kids happy, however for strained parents who are struggling with temperamental children, sometimes the best option is to just give in.

Either way, it is taxing for parents to have to make these choices. Having their children either be upset or ending up with spoiled brats is not an easy choice and this is only exacerbated by new advertisements cropping up for the latest children’s product that will inevitably restart the cycle.

It is hard to believe that companies, who have everything to gain in this situation, would regulate themselves in order to prevent this either. Even if most of the time parents can be resistant, there are some that still give in to purchase these products for one reason or another and this is what keeps the business alive. These companies have no reason to ever stop trying to get kids to want their products. Instead, often an outside third-party source – like the government – must intervene to provide regulations to these companies in order to control the system of advertisements.

So where does the government stand on this? In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission oversees marketing laws. These laws prohibit companies from using certain tactics, advertising certain products and ultimately keeps companies accountable. Furthermore, there are even more restrictive rules when it comes to advertising to children. This is meant to protect the rights of children, however, in the United States, its regulations are lax compared to many other countries – some of which outright ban advertising to kids under a certain age.

The market for products aimed at children is huge, often times companies are monetarily incentivized to advertise to children. Additionally, what is to say that a government, which thrives off of a growing GDP, would also not be motivated to maintain the almost $20.8 billion toy industry. Though there is no hard evidence of this sort of collusion between companies and governments, it is easy to see how in an unregulated system, corruption like this could occur.

Once companies see that their Machiavellian tactic works, they are more likely to continue to use manipulative tactics in their children’s advertisements to leverage that power over parents. And even with government regulations, if they aren’t strictly enforced, companies would have free reign. So it is due to the buying influence of children on their parents, mixed with the child’s lack of understanding towards capitalistic proceedings, that makes regulating the advertisements targeting children imperative. But is this enough?

No amount of rules and regulations will result in complete safety for children. Even with completely innocent intentions, companies always must be wary when advertising products targeted towards children. Ultimately, it is the company’s responsibility to screen their advertisements to ensure it does not manipulate children unfairly or present false claims that could be harmful to children, but parents can play a role too.

Parents can act as a way to screen out dangerous content, allowing them to protect their kids and identify dangerous companies that could manipulate their children. Having child restrictions on computers, limiting the types of television that children watch, creating rules to buying toys and teaching children about money all can play a part in ensuring that companies are not influencing children with potentially dangerous or manipulative content.

Though parents can certainly play a large role in protecting their children, the sheer amount of advertisements will almost certainly mean that some advertisements will slip through the cracks. If kids are educated in the risks associated with ads, they can become more aware themselves and better judge a given situation, however it ultimately the companies’ role to release advertisements that are age appropriate, clear and ethical.

Companies must be responsible for their advertisements. The inherent nature of advertising to children makes it a dangerous environment for companies to involve themselves in; they must make money but need to keep an appropriate nature to their work. As a result, companies must form their own ethical standards, on top of adhering to government policy while keeping in mind the perceptions of children and parents who will be viewing the ads. The bottom line is that in any advertisement, companies are responsible for the content and should be held accountable for what they are presenting. Thus, companies should be carefully crafting their ads, ensuring ethical certainty before sending it off to print.

thank you friend

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