Would McDonald's get away with McPlay in the UK?

By Jon Bains

May 9, 2013 | 9 min read

In general, overtly marketing to kids is pretty hard these days. Given media consumption habits it's considerably more permission-based than advertising standards would lead you to believe. Although my own household may not be entirely typical, it is pretty representative of the multi-screen household of today (or the day after).

'Hey kids, this is advertising!'

We don't watch any of what was traditionally called TV, i.e. no linear programming, other than occasionally watching the news or CBeebies. My kids tend to either fight over the iPad or play on a console, depending on who wins. As a result they see very little direct TV advertising. When they go round a friend’s house and are exposed to 'channels' they have actually asked: “Why did the film stop?”

However both the iPad and Xbox are commercial wonderlands. Just the other day there was a massive ad for some add-ons for Minecraft on the Xbox which caused no end of grief, as I had to explain to the kids that I wasn't paying three quid for an avatar, TYVM. I won that argument but still ended up buying all the avatar packs for Scribblenauts on the iPad.

There has been a goodly amount of coverage about the dangers of in-game payments so I'm not going to talk about that particularly, but it factors in when looking at how traditional 'kid friendly' brands compete for the hearts and minds for our progeny in the non-linear, specifically App world.

What's the story

While not currently available in the UK, McDonald's in the US have just launched their first app aimed directly at kids, called 'McPlay'. It currently consists of one game, which is apparently about healthy eating (I haven't played it myself yet). Interestingly, on the title screen it states 'This. Is Advertising!' - which when you channel it through Leonidas from the ‘300’ becomes quite amusing! At least it's honest.

It's a bit of a departure for them, as most of the other McDonalds apps out there are glorified store-locators, with the odd delivery service and some in-store promotions. In fact a quick survey of the competitors, such as Burger King or KFC, paints a similar picture - store locators, menus, at home delivery, and nothing remotely targeted at kids, making McPlay an interesting pivot point. Advergames were a mainstay of the interweb but there seems to be a bit of hesitancy in Appland, at least in this category.

So why are we not seeing anything like this in the UK? I thought be might be interesting to look at the ASA CAP guidelines to see if they covered off this kind of activity. Yep, I'm that sad.

First off – do Apps even fall under the guidelines?

The Code Applies to: “advertisements in non-broadcast electronic media, including but not limited to: online advertisements in paid-for space (including banner or pop-up advertisements and online video advertisements); paid-for search listings; preferential listings on price comparison sites; viral advertisements (see III l); in-game advertisements; commercial classified advertisements; advergames that feature in display advertisements; advertisements transmitted by Bluetooth; advertisements distributed through web widgets and online sales promotions and prize promotions."

While it doesn’t say ‘Apps’ outright I would say that they would be covered under either in-game advertisements or advergames. Philosophically of course one could argue that consumption of any franchise is in fact advertising but perhaps we best not go there.

"Marketers must not knowingly collect from children under 12 personal information about those children for marketing purposes without first obtaining the consent of the child’s parent or guardian."

OK, so there’s a question – what data is actually being collected from these apps? Frankly, unless you are actually registering your child directly, it would probably fall under anonymous or at worst the bill payer. However with so many apps these days asking to ‘upload your contacts’ who knows?

"Marketers must not knowingly collect personal information about other people from children under 16 unless that information is the minimum required to make a recommendation for a product, is not used for a significantly different purpose from that originally consented to, and the marketer can demonstrate that the collection of that information was suitable for the age group targeted."

If I read this right that could probably apply to all social networks. For example, Facebook’s age limit is 13 but given that they know the social graph of all under-16 year olds, and use it to provide relevant advertising, does that count?

"Data about third parties collected from children must not be kept for longer than necessary."

Well hmmm, what does no ‘longer than necessary’ mean? For that matter, since we don't know what data has been collected anyway, how can we check? Whilst I'm not convinced by current legislative proposals, in terms of best practice I suspect all apps should allow you to review and/or delete capture info. No?

"Marketing communications addressed to, targeted directly at or featuring children must not exploit their credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience."

Actually that whole statement makes me shudder when I think of all the stuff my kids have on their iPad. The entire multi-billion 'free-to-play' world preys on exactly that.

"Children must not be made to feel inferior or unpopular for not buying the advertised product."

Can’t get through a level? Haven't unlocked Zorg the Mankiness? Getting frustrated? Get on the High Score Chart by buying some of our tokens!

"Adult permission must be obtained before children are committed to buying."

Apple requires you to enter your password for in-app purchases and other related app purchases. However as of IOS 6 things have changed - if the App is free it doesn’t require a password. Personally I think it’s the parents' responsibility to know what their kids are doing, however even with parental controls I can’t stop the kids downloading a free-to-play honeypot.

"Must not include a direct exhortation to children to buy an advertised product or persuade their parents or other adults to buy an advertised product for them."

Now this is tricky. As mentioned before - my kids bring me the iPad all the time and say ‘I want that’. Whose fault is that?

I was quite surprised at how well thought out most of the ASA CAP code is – however, it seems just a bit unenforceable, and needs refreshing with a few more practical suggestions. If these guidelines were actually being applied to apps, then the app store might be significantly different.

The Grilling Effect

Concern over children’s safety in Appland, and frankly across all digital channels, is very much in focus. Be it economically or morally, the eyes of the world are looking through the eyes of the child now. In the marketing world it’s really hard not to mix-up brands with In-App purchases; be it overt or covert they are still encouraging you to buy something.

Food For Thought?

A possible resolution may be in the content rating system. If ‘permission must be obtained’ in the advertising or in-app space before buying anything then frankly the apps themselves should be rated at the age of consent i.e. 12+, 16+, however counter intuitive that may seem. While Apple has included the line 'Contains in-app purchases', that doesn't say very much compared to varying scales within. If my kid downloads ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ for free for the iPhone and it's rated 3+, and then they are then accosted with cross-selling ads for a million other books then that is a problem; one that goes away when the rating is 16+ or the parental controls are set higher.

The only real tip I have to offer here is keep an eye on what's going on with the ASA and recently announced Digital Consumer Rights Bill. Both of which will have an impact on how and if your brand / product has potential negative repercussions.

Again, I do firmly believe it’s the parents' responsibility to police and I am also not very keen on ill-conceived legislation. However, more than guns, porn, drugs or manga (as the case may be) or any of the other things which give you an adult rating, the idea of coming home to find them ‘McPlay’ing on the iPad without my permission, keeps me awake at night.

Jon Bains is a partner at business futures practice Atmosphere

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