Marketers tap chatty young teens, and hit a hot button
Think your talkative, trendy, Web-surfing 13-year-old might have a future in sales? She might already be in business. New forms of peer-to-peer, buzz-marketing campaigns - ignited and fanned by firms - are growing fast.Skip to next paragraph
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In a practice still widely unregulated, marketers enlist youths they see as having real sway over friends. The goal? Solicit the help of these influential kids in broadening sales in exchange for products and the promise of a role in deciding what the marketplace will offer.
Review a not-yet-released CD, score free concert tickets. Talk up a movie at a party, earn a DVD. The stakes are high: The 12-to-19 set reportedly spends about $170 billion a year.
Marketers insist their efforts are transparent, that kids' reactions are unscripted, and that word of mouth, done right, is inherently authentic.
At its first conference this week, the new Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) will invite input on an evolving code of ethics aimed, in part, at protecting children.
But opponents call the industry's youth-targeted component the odious next step in the commercialization of childhood, one that eyes ever-younger age groups, bribing them in a bid to cement brand loyalty and prompting them to wring friends for useful market data.
"Some of the forms that [buzz marketing] takes have to do with recruiting kids to be marketers and encouraging them to keep their identities as marketers secret," says David Walsh, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) in Minneapolis. "So kids end up being junior ad people, and they're encouraged not to share this [even] with their friends."
Teens, he says, also often endanger themselves by sharing too much personal information, opening themselves to different kinds of exploitation. NIMF points out that at one marketer-facilitated online community, kids can create their own Old Spice "Girls of the Red Zone" calendar. And that signing up for membership at Soul-Kool.com, one of a handful of buzz-marketing firms that double as online communities, requires entering an instant-messenger address.
The 1998 COPPA law - the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act - guards those under 13 from marketers who would use such data for commercial purposes. NIMF would like to see it extended to cover older teens as well.
For now, self-policing is the rule. And industry insiders don't deny the existence of unscrupulous players. "There are lots of sleazy companies out there; it's absolutely a legitimate concern," says Andy Sernovitz, WOMMA's chief executive.
"[WOMMA] was formed by the companies that do protect kids, to clearly separate who is a responsible marketer and who isn't," says Mr. Sernovitz. He adds that NIMF declined to participate in the drafting of the code or speak at WOMMA's Chicago conference. (Mr. Walsh says his group prefers the broader public forum.)
For marketers, the power of online communities is hard to resist. Tremor.com, a division of Procter & Gamble, which is not a member of WOMMA, takes online teens through a series of screening questionnaires aimed at identifying "connectors," youths with vast social networks.
Only 10 to 15 percent make the grade, says Steve Knox, Tremor's chief executive. Those who do are offered membership and made two promises.
"One, Tremor is going to ... provide you with cool new ideas before your friends have them," says Mr. Knox. The second speaks to teens, who, as a group, feel ignored. "They're filled with great ideas, and they don't think anybody listens to them. So our second promise is: We will give you a voice that will be heard by these companies."