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.
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."
A letter is sent to parents explaining their child's role, Knox says, adding that youths don't receive tangible rewards beyond product samples, which go out in about 30 percent of cases.
Actually, the letter home is nothing more than a placard announcing a child has been selected to influence companies, says Bob Aluja, a professor of marketing at Xavier University in Cincinnati. It is addressed to youths on the assumption it will be passed along to parents. He says he has talked to children who threw away the notice.
The notice intended for parents is also incomplete, asserts Dr. Aluja. "They leave out that they're gathering research information from your child, they leave out that your child will be ... asked to participate in focus groups [for which product manufacturers] will give the child $75 to $150 a month. And they leave out that while they don't tell your child not to tell, they also don't say to the child 'When you go to your friends, let them know that you're working for Tremor.' "
"What these companies are doing is very intrusive, they're penetrating kids' private time," says Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, author of "Talking to Tweens." She counsels parents to hunker down with children in front of the computer. When ads pop up, asking them to take surveys or input personal information, talk about it. "[Ask] 'What do you think they're trying to do?' Just take the child through a growing awareness."
Others maintain that the young have the right to a private world, within reason. "If it's a new brand of deodorant or a new crunchy snack, and they want to feel 'first,' no big deal," says Marian Salzman, author of books on marketing, in an e-mail. "Teens are living in a world where everything is marketing, and part of coming of age is learning to say no."
Still, saying no to friends could mean applying marketing radar to once-safe relationships.
"I have a big issue with the corruption of what is a valuable form of commercial information: disinterested information," says Juliet Schor, a sociologist and author of several books, including "Born to Buy." "The more you do of this, the harder it is to know ... who's marketing to you, and do you have to suspect your friends?"
Once an exchange involves secrecy it is no longer mutually rewarding, says Ms. Schor. "It's a one-way thing in which the 'marketer child' is using the others.... It's teaching children to regard their friends as exploitable assets."
Schor cites the "rhetoric of secrecy" used by marketers such as girlsintelligenceagency.com (GIA), which she says attracts children 8 and even younger, encouraging, for example, product- centered slumber parties. (GIA did not return calls seeking comment.)
Ultimately, word of mouth could itself be the best protection against what some have termed buzzploitation.
"Buzz marketing ... is all about honesty," says Mark Hughes, a marketing consultant and author. "Undercover" marketing, he says, crosses a line from genuine word of mouth to manufactured buzz. That line may become clearer as groups like WOMMA help marketers find consensus on tactics.
Watch groups could then alert parents and youths about firms that cross it, says Mr. Hughes. Good word of mouth spreads fast, he says. "But bad word of mouth spreads about 30 times faster."