WFA Comment & Analysis: How the internet accelerates marketers regulatory challenges


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The internet has become like electricity. It's part of our lives, something that we assume will be there when we want it.

But despite all the advantages that always-on access to unlimited knowledge - and incessant tweets or Facebook requests from people you barely know - brings, the rise of the internet also raises legitimate public concerns.

Parents know that the internet has become a major influence on their children's lives but they have ambivalent feelings about it.

New research carried out earlier this year by BDRC for the WFA highlights perceptions of both the positive influence that digital brings in terms of computer literacy and education as well as some significant concerns that marketers urgently need to factor into their planning.

The aim of the study was to identify consumer issues about the world's fastest-growing communication platform, notably parents' perceptions of their children's exposure, attitude to the risks it presents, the marketing they are exposed to and their expectations of the business community.

Based on online interviews with more than 3,000 parents of children aged 6-16 years in 10 different markets -Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, the UK and USA ­the results show that education is the primary concern of parents.

It may be reassuring to hear that just 20% of parents think advertising and marketing is an important influence on their children - around the same level as books and comics but significantly below popular culture, watching TV, friends and teachers - but marketers cannot afford to relax.

Rapidly growing impact
Back in 2004 when we did a similar piece of research, the internet barely featured. Fast-forward to 2010 and 38% of parents regard it as very influential and a further 44% as fairly influential.

The increasing role of digital in children's lives is also corroborated by other sources. EU Kids Online - a study conducted by the London School of Economics as part of the European Commission Safer Internet Programme involving 23,000 children in 25 countries - found that children are going online younger than ever. Across the EU one-third of 9-10-year olds go online daily, rising to more than three quarters of 15-16-year-olds.

Parents have their heads in the sand
The curious thing is that parents don't seem to be aware of just how much time their offspring are spending online. They may be concerned but they really don't know the half of it.

While our respondents believed that their children spent 75 minutes online a day - and they broadly consider this too much - other authoritative studies have found that kids are connected for significantly longer.

In the US, The Kaiser Family Foundation discovered that 8-18-year-olds spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes online a day - that's more than two 24-hour days a week. And because they multitask they are actually exposed to almost 11 hours of media content each day!

This mismatch creates the potential for a perfect storm of bad news: parents suddenly realise just how much time their kids spend online, it's impact is sensationalised by campaign groups and online marketing comes under fire for being part of the picture.

In 2009 The London Times ran a story headlined "How Advertisers Are Stalking Your Children". This debate is already happening in the mainstream press.
It may be reassuring that online advertising scores so low on the parental radar but their other concerns about the internet have the potential to come back and bite marketers from different angles.

Once parental perceptions catch up with the reality then the issues highlighted by our research are likely to soar to the top of the political agenda, setting a new set of challenges for marketers.

Personal information is key
The top parental concerns -ranking above pornography, violence and online gambling - are giving out personal information, contact with strangers and companies collecting personal information.

WFA has invested a lot of time with its national partner organisations to create a self-regulatory response to this concern. In the US, the Association of National Advertisers has partnered with other industry bodies to role out a comprehensive Self Regulatory Program for Interest-Based Advertising (the marketing practice of targeting groups of consumers on the basis of their internet browsing history and preferences). This programme allows consumers an easy opt out via a symbol (see below) that appears on every relevant advert. An EU-wide equivalent is currently in the works.

It should be pointed out that our research shows that internet marketing is not a major concern for most parents. Respondents acknowledged that many companies are getting the balance between promoting their goods and services and perceived intrusion into the lives of their target market right. But equally they're not confident that all brands and marketers do.

The risk of marketers being portrayed as big brother data harvesters remains extremely high.

When does innocence end?
One of the key challenges identified by the research is the fact that the current approach to age adopted by the industry and lawmakers may not work for online.

In the food advertising debate a child is defined as someone under 12-years old. This is the age at which industry analyses TV ad patterns to show compliance with the various Pledge schemes that the WFA, marketers and local associations are successfully rolling out across the world.

In the US the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) forbids the collection of data about under-13s without the permission of their parents. Sweden prohibits TV advertising to children under 12. Quebec forbids TV ads aimed at under 13s.

Online the research shows that parental concerns focus on the 9-14s. A significant majority do not believe that those eight and under are as susceptible. One reason could be that parents exercise tighter control on the online activities of younger children.

This perception of a period of vulnerability between innate innocence and early maturity has the potential to rewrite the rules on the very sensitive issue of children. Parents may be reflecting wider concerns about what their offspring will come across as they surf the internet alone but 48% believe 12-14-year olds are "particularly susceptible to digital advertising messages".

This could also be recognition that marketing and editorial are much more blurred in the digital world than they are in print and TV. But why is it that The Economist flags up advertorial content to warn supposedly susceptible adults while a branded game on a kids' website carries no such caveats?

Questions for brands to answer
In a world where lines are increasingly blurred between advertising and editorial and where age restrictions are no longer as simple as they were in traditional media, big questions are being asked of marketers. Digital asks us to look again at our consumer protection principles. Are guidelines developed for the era of TV, press and radio suitable for the digital age?

At the heart of the solution is a renewed emphasis on media literacy. This is why the WFA is championing Digital Adwise globally. Launched this year in the UK, it gives children the skills to confidently navigate the commercial realities of an online world. The research indicates that parents overwhelming support media literacy education. For the industry, it is the only way that we can future-proof our ability to communicate in a space to which children have access.

We also need to ensure that consumers - and regulators -understand the benefits that advertiser funded content brings to consumers in terms of free online content. Excessive restriction on brands' ability to advertise will force more content behind paywalls.

Collectively as marketers we need to ensure that we can answer the challenging questions that the online world asks us. After all there will be plenty of others who will be only too ready to provide answers that we don't agree with.

It's not just about the ads
The challenges of consumer perception in the digital space may not even be related to the adverts themselves. It's not so much about the banners or pop-ups but the information that enables those adverts to be delivered. It's about data that's kept when a consumer clicks on an ad, not just by the brand but by the agency, the adserver and the media owner.

But people see your brand on the ad. So the buck stops with you.
Our definitions of what age a child ceases to be vulnerable to the "evil" approaches of big brand advertisers may also need to be revisited. The different way that children interact with new media combined with the blurring of the line between marketing and editorial may force a rethink.

When parental perceptions catch up with their children's real digital media use, these issues may explode. This survey helps us identify the issues that we need to address so that online marketing doesn't get caught up in the resultant firestorm and become collateral damage.

Activists have already described the data collection as "a new form of social surveillance" and highlighted the "huge investment in neuro-marketing". "Big Brother headlines" capture hearts and minds.

Failure to win these debates could end up depriving marketers of the greatest ever means of connecting with consumers.

For a full copy of the report please contact Will Gilroy at the WFA:

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