Marketing firms use fake online profiles to prey on children

Unscrupulous firms are recruiting children online to work as 'brand advocates'
Unscrupulous firms are recruiting children online to work as 'brand advocates'
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Companies are using unscrupulous marketing techniques to prey on children on the internet and convince them to buy their goods, experts have warned.

Youngsters are being recruited online to work as “brand advocates”, while others are marketed to by fake online profiles they believe are other young people – but which are actually major companies looking to sell their goods.

Marketing academic Chris Preston, from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said adults posing as children in social media profiles to advertise products such as clothing is not illegal, while toddlers watching TV online are currently regularly bombarded with adverts for products such as junk food which would not be allowed to be shown around standard children’s TV programmes.

“Online marketing can involve the generation of fake friends on social networking sites,” Preston said. “In order to infiltrate the society of children, which has a strong online aspect in current times, brand advocates are posing as children in order to attempt to influence attitudes towards a brand. Generally we do not want adults posing as children on sites populated by children, whatever their motives may be, as this represents a gross intrusion.

“Children are recruited online to become brand advocates. Peer influence is known to be the strongest force in brand popularity among children, so marketing firms have taken to the online recruitment of children who act on behalf of the brand within their social network.”

While most social media sites have age restrictions, it is not difficult for children to get around them, with many setting up their own profiles.

Meanwhile, children are also being encouraged to spend extra cash while playing online games such as football game Fifa 2016, where youngsters can only buy players if they pay to buy “coins” in the game.

A recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) maintained that in-game requests for expenditure were not tantamount to direct exhortation – but rather a “mechanism” for purchase.

A spokeswoman for ASA said: “This is a standard practice but if these products are targeted at or likely to appeal to children then advertisers have to tread carefully.

“The ASA has upheld complaints against advertisers which were referred to us from the Competition Markets Authority. In some of our rulings, we noted that it was possible to play the games without spending real money or sharing the game, but that certain activities required participation in a paid-membership system, which entitled members to additional benefits.

“We considered that text, including ‘Become a Member’, ‘JOIN NOW’, directly exhorted children to purchase membership subscriptions as well as in-game ‘currency’.”

But Preston says this type of advertising should still not be aimed at children. That’s not opportunity to purchase, it’s stealth marketing upon children, and it is astonishing that we just shrug and put up with it,” he said.

Last week the Committee of Advertising Practice, the body responsible for writing the UK Advertising Code, launched a consultation which could see the online advertising of junk food to children banned. The consultation is due to close in July.