Advocates File Complaint Against PepsiCo for Deceptive Marketing to Teens
[Editor's Note: This post has been updated to include a response from PepsiCo. --Genie]
On October 19, the Center for Digital Democracy, along with Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, and The Praxis Project, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that asks that commission to investigate PepsiCo and its subsidiary, Frito-Lay, for deceptive marketing to kids—especially teenagers.
In the complaint, the Center for Digital Democracy identifies three ways it alleges PepsiCo is using these deceptive techniques:
- Creating "immersive" experiences teens have trouble recognizing as advertising;
- Claiming to protect teens' privacy, while simultaneously collecting a huge amount of personal information without clearly giving the teen notice and the opportunity to grant consent; and
- Using viral marketing techniques that violate existing FTC guidelines.
"We are aware of the filing to the FTC and believe it contains numerous inaccuracies and mischaracterizations," said Aurora Gonzalez, company spokesperson for Frito-Lay. "PepsiCo and its Frito-Lay division are committed to responsible and ethical marketing practices. Our marketing programs, which are often innovative, comply with applicable law and regulations."
Though the timing was coincidental, Pepsi announced two new social media platforms yesterday: Pepsi Sound Off and Pepsi Pulse. The press release announcing these platforms included this winner of a quote:
"We live in a world where people naturally watch a TV show and engage on-line about it—in real time. Pepsi Sound Off is a unique application that allows fans to do just that in an immersive, addictive and social fashion, which not only builds loyalty for a TV show but also deepens Pepsi's credentials as an active participant in pop culture while dialing-up the entertainment for fans," said Shiv Singh, Global Head of Digital, PepsiCo Beverages.
How do those words make you feel about a company that's selling your kids soda and chips, and that's building brand loyalty with your kids for a lifetime?
Playing the game
Hotel 626, which takes players on a deliberately terrifying journey through a haunted hotel, is one of the games targeted by the complaint. Take a look at this video below, which talks about the game's development:
The adver-game's content is scary; the amount of information they're asking teens to disclose scares me even more.
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the creative company that developed
Hotel 626 and Asylum 626 decided to use even more interactivity and Twitter and Facebook integration in the Asylum 626 sequel. Mark Sobier, who was one of the Goodby creative team's leaders, told online magazine Creativity how they did it:
We employed head tracking in one scene, so the player literally must move to avoid an attack. We used the webcam in new and innovative ways to actually place the player into the game play itself. We asked people to give us more access and information this year, telling them upfront that the more they gave us, the scarier the experience. We used social networking in ways that hadn't been done before. Specifically, we bring their friends into the experience and the game play itself. All of these changes began to add up to us to a more immersive, more frightening
On Civil Eats, Michele Simon described trying to play Asylum 626 earlier this week:
The music is the sound of a heartbeat, which I have to admit is already scary. The first screen warns the site is for “mature audiences only” and those “under age 18 must not view without an adult guardian”—what a great marketing device for teens. The next screen helpfully explains that the experience is best viewed with my lights out and headphones on. Then, after showing off the brand with, “Doritos Presents,” the site suggests that I log into Facebook or Twitter for the “full treatment experience.”
Here's the privacy problem: Though kids are told up front that they have to give up their data to make the game scarier and more interactive, complainants allege that what they're told about how that data is being used appears purposefully vague. The complaint alleges PepsiCo doesn't want kids to know that once they've given up their data, it can be shared across the whole corporate family, and can be used to market all kinds of high-fat, high-sodium, and/or sugary products to kids.
"I can't wait to see what the FTC does with this," said Marion Nestle on Food Politics.
If you're the parent of a teenager, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you OK with PepsiCo collecting your son's or daughter's cell phone number, photo, and other personal information? Are you comfortable with PepsiCo then using that information to market their products to your kids?
How to learn more and take action
The complaint itself was based on a report also released yesterday by the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN). The report, written by Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy and Dr. Kathryn Montgomery, Professor in the School of Communication at American University, walks through the variety of techniques food marketers are using to get to kids.
There's a really readable summary of the report available if you want to learn more about how some marketers reach kids.
If you're ready to raise your voice for change on the issue of marketing junk food to kids, I encourage you to take part in Food Day on October 24, an event which wants to make food healthier and more affordable, and to make sure it's produced sustainably and humanely. As part of that, one of Food Day's six principles is to promote health by curbing junk-food marketing aimed at kids:
Food companies use some of the most advanced neuromarketing techniques to get inside children's developing brains and encourage them to prefer disease-promoting foods. Industry's sophisticated tactics are designed to drive high-tech wedges between parents and children, undermining parental authority and responsibility. It's high time to stop companies' exploitative marketing of junk foods to children and for government to mount major campaigns to encourage kids to eat healthy meals.
You can learn more about how to participate in Food Day on the event's website. If you're participating, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below—I'll be writing more about it next week, and would love to hear your perspective.
[Editor's Note: PepsiCo is a sponsor of BlogHer. --Rita]
Genie blogs about gardening and food at href="http://www.theinadvertentgardener.com">The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories. She is also the Food Section Editor for BlogHer, and, for purposes of full disclosure in regards to this post, the Communications Director for NPLAN.