But IHOP disagreed, saying the game was just for fun and didn’t fit the traditional definition of an ad.
“We did not consider the game in question to be an advertising vehicle,” the company, a unit of DineEquity, said in a statement, adding that it tries to be “sensitive to the issue of advertising to children.”
The episode highlighted an increasingly thorny debate on how to monitor advertising aimed at children when they are confronted with so many new forms of marketing online.
If even the ad industry can’t agree on the definition of an online ad, who can?
Kids spend more time than ever in front of screens beyond the living room television. Advertisers have responded with sophisticated ad campaigns that can start on the TV and then move to apps, social media sites and online games.
And federal regulators are struggling to keep up.
So far, the Federal Trade Commission doesn’t regulate advertising to kids on these new platforms, except to ensure that marketing messages aren’t false or misleading. The Federal Communications Commission limits ads on television but doesn’t police the Web either.
That worries children’s advocates, who say that the FTC and FCC may make distinctions but that to kids, a screen is a screen is a screen — and everything on it looks like entertainment to them.
“There is a great deal of research that shows children don’t distinguish between content and advertising,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and an advocate of children’s media protections. “Now on digital, there is the opportunity of more blurring of those lines, and the industry is pushing to keep definitions of online advertising broad and unclear.”
Through these new digital channels, companies hope to cash in on some of America’s biggest spenders. “Tweens,” or children ages 8 through 12, are estimated to spend $43 billion a year out of their own pockets — and that’s beyond the goods worth $155 billion or so that the kids pressure their parents to buy for them.
The IHOP Lorax promotion, for example, began with a TV ad that encouraged children to visit IHOP.com to participate in a sweepstakes promotion. Once they were on the site, the kids could see a video about a Lorax-inspired IHOP breakfast and play the “Save the Truffula Valley game,” which promised that players who did well would get closer to “treating yourself and the Lorax to a delicious Lorax’s breakfast at IHOP!”
Other companies follow the same strategy, where newspaper, radio, television and Web sites are used to get young users familiar with brands and products that they may buy on their own or pester their parents to buy.