The rise of underhanded marketing for toddlers

Are toy companies creating apps that indirectly serve as advertising games for infants and toddlers? That’s what Cheryl Williams, a PhD student in Communication and Media Studies at York, went on Q with Jian Ghomeshi to discuss last week. The CBC Radio conversation centered on William’s research involving apps made specifically for infants that have underlying advertising techniques embedded in them.

photo of young boy

Are advertisers marketing directly to infants and toddlers through the electronic games they play?

Williams notes that the current research landscape is sparse. “There is virtually no academic research focused on branded mobile apps for infants and toddlers. There is an emerging body of research into children's digital advergames but again, these studies do not address advertising games directed at infants and toddlers.”

She stresses the need to update advertising guidelines to adapt to the digital age.

“I think most parents and the general public would be surprised to find out that the current guidelines for advertising to children only apply to television and radio, and not to any form of digital advertising,” says Williams. “There is significant media coverage of PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) which address online privacy and tracking but I want to make people aware that these do not address frequency, duration or content of digital advertising targeting children - only privacy issues.”

The hope is to shed light on the need for formal investigation into how children, including infants and toddlers, are being approached by advertisers in the online space and whether the current tactics are exploiting children's vulnerability, loyalty, and relative inexperience.

As for the opportunity to speak with Jian Ghomeshi about her research, Williams notes it was a positive experience and also a chance to think on the fly. “The producer didn't supply me with any questions in advance so I had to wing it while I was on the air, but luckily Jian asked me very pertinent and insightful questions that were directly related to my topic.”

Since the airing on May 29, Williams has gained significant traction for her work from several Canadian outlets that continues to grow. She has received media requests from the National Post, local radio shows on CBC Regina, 680 news Winnipeg, CKNW Vancouver, CBC Newfoundland, and a Skype appearance on CTV Central Morning Live out of Regina.

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