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Are virtual worlds an appropriate marketing medium for kids?

When does marketing to kids go too far? Some say that the engagement-based marketing strategy of McWorld, McDonald’s virtual world for kids, is a sneaky and dishonest way of building brand loyalty among children. Food is nowhere to be found in the game and quest-filled virtual world, with the idea being that children will associate the brand with pleasurable experiences.

Though McWorld has been around for some time, a blog post by the NY Times and an investigation into online food advertising for kids has brought this strategy into discussion. Is it wrong? Are our children being tricked?

We have to be honest about the fact that children are going to know what McDonald’s is. This is not comparable to cigarette advertising featuring cartoons, which is still used to sell everything from cereal to snacks.

What we have is a large company who has invested a lot of money into creating a fun-filled online destination for children. As big and scary as the internet is, sites like these make the internet a safe place for kids to have fun and not wander into inappropriate territory. Consider the fact that kids who are not involved in extra curricular activities are more likely to get into trouble. When kids don’t have safe places to play online, they might end up somewhere less savory.

The post-bubble landscape of kids’ virtual worlds is going to see more of this engagement based marketing. The large amounts of cash required to build a sustainable virtual world are less likely to go to the start ups, and companies like McDonald’s are helping keep the medium stable.

Engagement-based marketing to kids through virtual worlds is no different than brand interactions on Twitter that have nothing to do with the product. As the market changes, so must the marketing. It’s a good thing to have more fun with brands than just being pitched to all day.

Chase Straight

Manager, Youth Media

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Moderation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Talk Back

Posted on April 26, 2011

Interesting post, and I get your point, although I’m not sure I agree. I think the cigarette company comparison is a good one, especially when you consider what obesity costs our society in terms of both lives and dollars.

But the idea of companies we don’t love doing things we appreciate is fascinating. The question of motivation is not unimportant, but it’s not the only one that matters. If McDonald’s builds a virtual world (or a non-profit like Ronald McDonald house) in order to promote its brand and spread the “bad-food gospel,” it doesn’t mean that the things they’ve built are no good. Still, I’m not sure I want to support them.

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