Groups Call for FTC to Investigate Doritos’ Digital Marketing

Complaint highlights obesity debate on Capitol Hill

Doritos' digital marketing campaigns targeting teens may have won a lot of awards, but they've also attracted the attention of consumer and privacy groups, four of which are now claiming the campaigns hoodwink gullible teens into buying the unhealthy, salty snack.

In a complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission, the groups, led by the Center for Digital Democracy, urge the commission to investigate and bring action against Pepsi-Co and its subsidiary Frito-Lay for "engaging in deceptive and unfair digital marketing practices," in violation of section 5 of the FTC Act.

"This complaint sheds a spotlight on practices that are increasingly used routinely in the industry, but which raise many troubling consumer protection and privacy concerns, especially when adolescents are the target," said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the CDD, which was joined by Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog, and The Praxis Project in the complaint.

The filing specifically focuses on the stealth interactive marketing and data collection used by Doritos in a number of games and entertainment campaigns, including Hotel 626, Asylum 626, and Late Night Concerts. Throughout the game and entertainment experience, players must post pictures of themselves, access Facebook and Twitter accounts, and scan codes on the packages of Doritos bags in order to advance, or control the game or concert.

"Frito-Lay's digital marketing to teens is deceptive in at least three distinct ways," wrote Angela Campbell, the CDD's counsel and director of Georgetown Law's Institute for Public Representation. "Frito-Lay disguises its marketing campaigns as entertaining video games, concerts, and other immersive forms of entertainment, thus making it more difficult for teens to recognize them as marketing and to be skeptical about the messages they present. Frito-Lay claims to protect teens’ privacy but fails to do so. The campaigns also collect and use teens’ personal information without meaningful notice and consent. Frito-Lay uses viral marketing in ways that violate the FTC endorsement guidelines."

The charges against Doritos highlights the growing debate in Washington over childhood obesity and what to do about it. The FTC, as part of a working group with three other agencies, has proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children. The CDD is one of several groups promoting the food guidelines over the objections of the food, beverage, and advertising industries, which have managed to convince the feds to consider softening the guidelines.

Doritos' digital marketing campaigns were created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners through Snack Strong Productions, a unit the agency set up in 2006 to market the snack to teens to "treat Doritos less like a chip company and more like an entertainment company." Goodby won an Effie Ward for the unit in 2008.

"The FTC has received the complaint and will review it carefully," a spokeswoman for the commission told Adweek

"I'm very optimistic the [FTC] will take this up," said Campbell. "It's at the intersection of two big issues at the FTC, privacy and food marketing, where the FTC has been very active in bringing several cases."

The groups plan to go in and meet with the FTC Commissioners and staff about the complaint.