“The gap in this [childhood marketing] initiative is the fast-food restaurant. You didn’t see Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King or anybody other than McDonald’s at the forum,” Montgomery says.
Montgomery’s gives numerous examples of quick-serve restaurants “irresponsibly” digitally marketing to children in her report. She calls Burger King “a media entity” as well as a restaurant company, citing the chain’s branded online channel, Diddy TV. Montgomery also references Burger King’s recently launched site, Simpsonizeme.com, an interactive Web site that promotes the BK brand along with The Simpsons Movie.
Montgomery also questions Wendy’s ethics for placing several “commercials masquerading as videos” on YouTube. The videos, she says, are specifically designed to attract “young consumers.” One video, “Molly Grows Up,” generated more than 300,000 views. It features a young girl discussing ordering her first 99-cent Junior Bacon cheeseburger and Frosty. The Wendy’s logo was not featured in the videos, but users who watched received a link to a special site for promoting Wendy’s 99-cent value menu.
“That’s disguised as some kind of amateur video that really doesn’t say this is an ad and [Wendy’s] is using it as a way to get people to pass that message around when in fact it is an ad,” Montgomery says. “Some of those practices are at the very least unfair, if they’re not fully disclosed, and I think they’re definitely highly manipulative and perhaps deceptive.”
The Fine Line
On the other end of the spectrum, there are marketers who feel activists and researchers are overreacting. Harvey Hoffenberg, an online marketer who’s worked with Taco Bell and Burger King, says you go where your customers are and there’s nothing evil about targeting children on the Internet. However, he does believe that with today’s instant-communication society, online marketers must walk a fine line.
“You’ve got to find the right balance when you’re talking to kids or else [you are] going to get slapped with some unfavorable public relations,” Hoffenberg says.
So far, marketing executives aren’t abandoning strategies that include online games and micro sites to attract kids, says Max Valiquette, president of Youthography, a full-service marketing firm that specializes in targeting youth. He says quick-service restaurants have made sites “that are more content driven, more interesting, more game oriented, more fun with more entertainment that connects to that young consumer,” Valiquette says. “You can’t really bring the food experience to someone online. The best you can do is create games that are built around your brand and hopefully that gives them a better brand experience.”