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Advertisers: Here’s how to ethically engage kids with ads

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Anzu present marketers with a choice and steps for how to market more ethically to children while keeping them safe.

The pandemic created a fundamental shift in the way we go about our daily lives. With stay-at-home orders issued worldwide to stop the virus from spreading, screens have become the go-to source for connecting with the outside world while staying safe and remaining indoors. From FaceTiming with family and friends to collaborating with colleagues on Zoom, our screen dependency has hit a new high.

For children, screen time went from a reward to a necessity. A survey from June 2020 found that 62% of children aged 14 to 17 were spending over four hours per day on devices, compared to 32% having that much screen time in pre-coronavirus days. But all the additional screen time isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it provides a sense of normalcy by being the primary outlet for education, socialization, and entertainment.

How video games are helping children cope

In a somewhat seismic shift, psychologists, technologists, and parents have realized that video games could supply many of the social and educational aspects kids were missing out on while schools are closed. Just about every news outlet has published articles about how children can benefit from screen time. The title of an article in The New York Times says it all: Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won.

A large body of research from the past decade has been thrust into the spotlight, confirming that screen time in and of itself has relatively little negative impact; in fact, the opposite is true. For example, a 2016 Columbia University study revealed that children aged 6-11 who had high video game usage performed better in school and had fewer problems with peers than non-gaming kids.

The key to ensuring that children learn through video games and have positive online experiences is in making sure they are playing age-appropriate games. Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game earmarked for players of all ages, burst onto the gaming scene last year. The game evokes creativity and resourcefulness as players transform a desolate island into their vision of paradise by decorating it, collecting knick-knacks, and inviting others to visit.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons on Nintendo Switch

Animal Crossing has become home for a digital version of life. Kids who are missing out on celebrating all sorts of life events – from birthday parties to graduation ceremonies to holidays – are recreating the experience right inside the game, further blending their real-life with the game.

Other top-selling E-rated games are helping kids cope in different ways. Just Dance 2020 gets kids to show off their moves and engage in physical exercise. Madden NFL20 and NBA 2K20 are filling the void for kids who miss playing sports or attending live games. Through gameplay, children learn valuable lessons about how to socialize, collaborate, negotiate and problem solve. While classes are remote and playdates are canceled, video games are filling the gaps with life skills.

Parental concerns: Privacy and advertising

Although 82% of parents in the US believe that video games can inspire children to be creative and 65% believe that games can improve their child’s social skills, parents still have concerns about what their children are exposed to while gaming.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) was signed into law to protect the privacy and limit the data that online sites and apps can collect from children under 13, but enforcement has been limited. In 2019, the FTC fined Google and YouTube $170 million after a court ruled the companies had violated COPPA. However, COPPA fails to address the ethical questions surrounding advertising to children. Plenty of app developers and advertisers have exploited this loophole.

Youngsters don’t have the cognitive abilities to distinguish between in-app ads and the game itself, particularly as many in-app ads these days are mini-games, so they unwittingly download paid apps. In addition, some in-app purchase prompts use manipulative tactics to encourage children to click the buy button, such as making a game character look upset when the child declines. Not fully comprehend the idea that they are making a purchase, they click the button, and the character becomes happy again.

How to ethically advertise to children

These days, children under 18 have tremendous spending power, amounting to $143 billion per year. Nearly 90% of parents report their Gen Z children influence family purchase decisions and have some say over which brands, retailers, and product features are important. With 70% of this age group playing games regularly, it’s easy to understand why advertisers target kids through gaming.

However, what advertisers need to keep in mind, as Kate O’Loughlin, chief opperating officer of SuperAwesome, a company that offers kid-safe tools and technology, said, “Kids are an entirely different ecosystem to adults. Privacy laws like COPPA, GDPR-K, and AADC require you to use kid-tech solutions which ensure children stay completely anonymous and untracked. The under-16 audience is now almost 40% of all internet users and the last few years have seen a much greater awareness of these two discrete audiences. Covid has accelerated a realisation that fundamentally every brand is a family brand, which has pushed parental support initiatives right up the priority queue.”

Brands who don’t want to alienate parents yet still want to connect with kids in a friendly and meaningful way can turn to an alternative solution: blended in-game ads. The blended format means the ads aren’t clickable, only visible during gameplay, just like any other object in the game. The result is exposure to advertisements with the sole purpose of increasing brand awareness and brand affinity.

American Eagle in-game advertising campaign inside Gravity Rider Zero. Source: Anzu.io

The ads are placed on in-game objects meaning advertisers have granular-level control over exactly where and when ads appear. Because in-game ads should blend into the kid-friendly game, the best ad creatives are age-appropriate by nature. With thousands of game titles on the market, every advertiser can find a suitable game for their content while still reaching their desired audience.

Eventually, regulations will be put into place to further protect children and save parents millions of dollars in unwanted in-app purchases made by their children, but it always takes time for laws to catch up to technological advancements. In the meantime, advertisers who want to get their brands and products in front of children have a choice – to continue on the unethical path they are on or to try something new and experiment with ads that make an impact while keeping kids safe.

Itamar Benedy, co-founder and CEO at Anzu.