Today's teenagers are probably the most savvy generation yet when it comes to filtering out advertising, but that is no worry for junk food and drink companies who steadily deploy stealthier and more sophisticated interactive promotions that specifically target teens and exploit their emotional and developmental vulnerabilities. The newest generation of internet-based junk food promotions uses cutting edge marketing techniques with names like "augmented reality," "virtual environments" and "neuromarketing" -- the use of scientifically-devised digital marketing techniques that trigger teens' subconscious emotional arousal.
While few were looking, PepsiCo subsidiary Doritos quietly shifted its target audience from parents to teens. The chip maker now offers a teen-targeted website, "Doritos Late Night Augmented Reality," that gives kids the ability to design a concert experience with a popular band just for themselves. The site lets teens control and manipulate the stage, camera angles and lighting, for example.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Teenagers Love to Be Scared"
"No one craves advertising, especially teens, but they do seek out entertainment," the narrator of a video by Doritos' advertising company carefully explains, as he describes new digital marketing techniques and how they are used.
To better target young consumers, Frito-Lay offers teens an immersive online game called "Horror Hotel 626." Users must register with the site, and after so doing may be offered promotions that require them to volunteer personal information like their date of birth, gender, email address, telephone number, or other contact or demographic information. To augment its allure to teens, the website is only open during the nighttime, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. The site traps viewers in a haunted hotel where they "have to do whatever it takes to get out." While the viewer plays, the site takes over the player's webcam and takes a picture of the user when he or she doesn't expect it, and then shows the photo to the user later on in the game in a scary situation in the hotel. The site also posts the photo on the user's Facebook page. The program tells viewers to call a number to get step-by-step instructions on how to get out of the hotel.
Horror Hotel 626 has had over 4 million visits.
Tagging, Tracking, Profiling, Targeting
When young people go online, they unwittingly allow promoters to tag, track and profile them and send them targeted advertising. Once promoters gain access to a teen's mobile phone, for example, they use the embedded GPS in the device to find out where their consumers are and deliver them a message when they get close to a certain fast-food outlet, for example, or send messages to them suggesting they buy a Diet Coke when the afternoon temperature where they are located gets over, say, 75 degrees.
Soda and snack manufacturers are also using the relatively new field of neuromarketing to boost teens' engagement with a brand. The objective of neuromarketing is to find different ways to circumvent rational decision-making. Food manufacturers are applying neuromarketing techniques to help boost sales of unhealthy foods, like soda and chips, to young consumers. The techniques involve the use of biosensory feedback tools -- like eye-tracking technologies, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) -- to measure consumers' physical and emotional responses to different marketing techniques and messages, and then apply this information to better design digital promotions.
Teens are heavy users of cell phones and media players, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, online video and other digital media. They are also at a critical point in their development where poor control over biological and psychosocial urges can lead to poor or impulsive decision-making. These two factors create a perfect nexus for advertisers when it comes to exploitative marketing.
Exploiting Developmental Vulnerabilities
Junk food marketers use teens' vulnerable stage of development against them by creating immersive environments, infiltrating their social networks, using avatars and other first-person simulations, collecting their personal data and using other techniques that tap into and trigger teens' subconscious. Cross-promotions, like movie tie-ins, are also thrown into the mix. For example, kids visiting a McDonalds website that promoted the movie Avatar could use their webcam to interact in a series of virtual reality games. Buying more Big Macs gave kids the ability to reach higher levels of play in the games, and codes included in Happy Meals gave kids access to special features embedded in the games. The Avatar cross-promotion resulted in an 18 percent rise in sales of Big Mac's in the U.S.
Marketers use these kinds of engaging, highly-charged, digital promotions to interact with kids on an emotional level and encourage kids to interact with brands on a more intimate level. Kids unwittingly hand over personal information to marketers and share stimulating promotions with other kids. It's a massive and effective marketer's dream come true, and there are no laws against it. Food and beverage makers have started pouring their financial resources into these marketing techniques in an effort to influence teen's buying behavior and form brand preferences that will last into adulthood.
Obesity among youth in the U.S. is a known problem, and these new, no holds-barred, super-sophisticated digital marketing tactics have public health advocates concerned. On October 19, 2011, the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog and the Praxis Project together submitted to the Federal Trade Commission a Complaint and Request for Investigation of PepsiCo's and Frito-Lay's Deceptive Practices in Marketing Doritos to Adolescents (pdf). The complaint charges Doritos with disguising corn chip ads as entertainment, and operating campaigns that deceptively collect teens' personal information and that are "likely to deceive reasonable teens." A website about the complaint offers a whole gallery of video case studies of the new marketing techniques that companies are using to target and lure kids to purchase their products.
These marketing techniques throw even more worry onto the stack of concerns parents already have about raising children. We used to think of a predator as a dark figure lurking in the alley who might try to grab our kids. Now, scientifically-devised commercial predation on children can be as close as the nearest computer terminal, cell phone or drive-up.
Note from CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves: CMD is currently working to raise awareness about the Coke-Koch connection and the role of PepsiCo's main competitor, the Coca-Cola Company, in its alliance with the Koch Brothers through our ALECexposed.org effort. However, PepsiCo, which is a former corporate supporter of ALEC, is obviously engaged in other troubling practices. CMD does not endorse either high fructose cola brand, but suggests readers consider other ways to quench their thirst.