Posted by: Laura Phillips Garner | January 24, 2010

It’s a Tightrope. Step Carefully.

Kids of all ages can create a buddy on to explore this virtual town.

I spent a lot of time this past week canvassing Web sites that market to children. I became a virtual citizen of Millsberry, “gushed” my house and the Arc De Triomphe and listened to a pickle warble badly at, created a fireworks show and dressed a snowman at, and played Winter Whirl at all in the name of academic research.

I giggled just like I imagine younger children do when they are having fun playing advergames at these sites. (Giggling was greatest when I splattered my house with virtual gushers. Try it. You will see what I mean. It’s just silly. What can I say?)

The question is: Is marketing to children online ethical? After all, as an adult, I know that companies have created these Web sites and advergames to get my attention and immerse me in their brands. I have the capacity to permit it and can deal with the consequences. I make my purchase decisions and know what I can and cannot afford. As an adult, I have matured.

Children have not yet had that chance, and yet marketers are exposing them to a myriad of brand messages online all in the name of fun and play. Companies often couch these advergames as educational, and I am sure some of them are. Yet, I still have this queasy feeling about marketing to children online or otherwise. It is like walking a tightrope. If you are going to do it, step carefully and have a safety net in place—for the children.

Two of many organizations that can help marketers walk that fine line are the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) Self-Regulatory Program for Children’s Advertising and Common Sense Media, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that helps parents make good decisions about the media their children consume.

For example, CARU guidelines—which were updated in 2009—stipulate that companies using online media to market to children not use characters or personalities to sell products near the editorial or program content. Furthermore, CARU standards say that if an advertiser integrates an advertisement into a game or activity, the advertiser should label the ad in a way that is clearly understood by the child.

Common Sense Media reviews Web sites and their games for children ages 2-17 based on child development principles, and offer reviews from parents and children. Reviews include a green “on” button, a yellow “iffy” button, and a red “off” button with the age appropriateness. Editors study and rate the sites for educational values, messages, violence, sex, language, consumerism, and drinking, drugs and smoking. A section on “What Parents Need to Know” and some tips on “What Families Can Talk About” in relation to the reviewed site also are offered.

If I had to create Web sites and online games for children, I would seek information from organizations like CARU and Common Sense Media. They would help me and my company design educational, fun games for children first and promote my brand second. Remember, we, as marketers, walk a fine ethical line when our target market is children. Walk it thoughtfully.

–Laura Phillips Garner


  1. Laura,
    This is a very important topic. Marketers certainly bear some responsibility for using ethical practices. It’s the contemporary version of discussions of TV advertising. But the cyberworld seems so much more complex!

    • I agree, Theresa. We all must look out for our society’s children and their best interests no matter what we are selling.


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