The Washington Post

Marketing to children on social networks, is it fair?

Some of McDonalds’ campaigns have been criticized for harming children. (Tim Boyle/Bloomberg)

The recommendations are the result of a government-commissioned six-month investigation, known as The Bailey Review, into what the Brits have called the “commercialisation and sexualisation” of childhood.

Change the s’s to z’s and we get the point. Children here, too, are being exposed to unhealthy images and manipulated by marketers at too young an age.

Many of the Review’s recommendations might be unpalatable to our First Amendment-loving ears, such as covering up sexual images on the front of magazines and newspapers or banning the sale of sexy children’s clothes. Even the Prime Minister who asked for the report doesn’t seem keen on taking the hard line the review recommends.

The proposed limits to social network marketing, however, are of particular interest to advocates of U.S. regulation of children’s marketing.

Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the School of Communication at American University and her husband, Jeffrey Chester, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Digital Democracy, have been examining such tactics for years. Their Web site,, is a fascinating look at what they call the new “marketing ecosystem.”

It cites several new media strategies, such as a McDonalds text messaging campaign, Mountain Dew and Lucky Charms campaigns that ask fans to create their own promotional videos, thus turning marketees into unpaid marketers. My favorite example is of the KFC campaign that embedded a high-pitched sound into advertisements which most adults cannot hear.

One person’s idea of a brilliant media strategy, is another’s idea of unfair manipulation.

An argument can be made that these types of campaigns are more harmful than traditional campaigns geared to children, which haven’t been without their own critics, as McDonalds found last month.

Montgomery said the new tactics purposefully circumvent parents, who have the judgment to avoid unhealthy products on behalf of their children. She is especially concerned about how such techniques are contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic.

“It’s totally under the radar,” she said. “We need some kind of rules and regulations.”

What do you think? Should federal regulators intervene when it comes to children’s marketing? Or is this nanny state territory?



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