Children For Sale

Got girls?” That was the subject of an e-mail sent last month from a professional marketing firm to a 13-year-old boy. If he read past the subject line, he was promised access to “loads of gorgeous girls for you to check out and vote on.”

An isolated example? Unfortunately not. Consider this e-mail sent to another 13-year-old, a girl who was invited to visit a second company’s chat room, where she can “flirt with other visitors.”

Both e-mails are part of an increasingly common strategy among a new breed of youth marketers: They use sexual titillation and age-inappropriate language and images to entice kids into helping to sell products and services.

Welcome to the brave new world of minors and viral marketing. Marketers are creating Web sites and promotional programs that attract young people by offering free gifts and the “opportunity to meet new friends” if they register as “secret agents.” Once enrolled, the “agents” are sent free products to promote among friends, family and peers.

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Media and the Family began an investigation into these practices. And what we’ve found is that marketing firms with contrived “cool” names like SoulKool, BzzAgent and Procter & Gamble’s Tremor—which boasts to have “cracked the code” of marketing to teens online—are exposing young people to adult-oriented concepts and products, exploiting minors as an inexpensive and unsuspecting distribution force, and creating forums that are easy targets for child predators.

Generally, the Web sites do not require parental consent or proof of age. In fact, on at least one site, simply changing the year of one’s birth allowed an individual who first registered as a 10-year-old to re-register as an older child. In fact, Girls Intelligence Agency openly recruits girls as young as 8 years old.

This trend has been referred to as “word-of-mouth advocacy.” But sometimes youth marketers end up advocating more than goods and services. More often than not, they ascribe a level of maturity to minors that is well beyond their years, with potentially disastrous results.

In her book Born to Buy, sociology professor Juliet Schor argues that exposing children to consumer culture increases the likelihood they will suffer from depression, anxiety and poor self-esteem. And when marketing firms advise minors that they should use “discretion” and decide “carefully” whether to reveal to friends and family what they are doing, that inherently teaches lessons of deception and dishonesty.

But there are important differences among consumers; unlike adults, minors don’t have the cognitive skills to differentiate among marketing messages, nor do they have the self-esteem to resist the lure of being given free samples and the opportunity to promote “cool” products and services among their friends. That’s why the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the National Advertising Review Council developed special guidelines for advertising that involves kids. Specifically, CARU states that certain “techniques which may be appropriate for adult-directed advertising may mislead children if used in child-directed advertising.”

My advice to parents is simple: Monitor your children’s Internet use and the Web sites they visit. If your kids inform you that they are being recruited for an online program or promotion, immediately review the materials sent, including privacy language, and make certain that the parameters of their participation are clearly articulated, that the promotion in question is not sexual in content or tone and does not involve exploiting friends, peers or your little 13-year-old’s nascent Rolodex.