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Appearances Can Be Deceiving



A few years back, the makers of Doritos potato chips decided to re-launch two flavors of chips that had been discontinued in the 1980s, banking that a new generation of young people would become new consumers of the calorie-filled snack.
The folks at Frito-Lay knew that convincing kids to eat the chips would take more than a catchy advertising jingle. Instead, they created “Hotel 626,” a sophisticated Internet game that brought the flavors “Back from the Dead” in creepy ways.
But the game was actually just a clever marketing effort aimed at teenagers. Users could “check in” at the hotel to play —only between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., adding to its allure — and they were required to enter their names and email addresses. They then used their webcams, mobile phones, Twitter feeds and a custom Facebook application to play. 
Flashy with a touch of fright, Hotel 626 proved incredibly popular among teens. It cost less than $1 million but was so successful the company launched a sequel the next year. It also caught the attention of consumer advocates, who were concerned about the game’s deceptive marketing practices.
Last week, several consumer advocacy agencies filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency look into the marketing practices of PepsiCo and its subsidiary, Frito-Lay. The complaint alleges that Hotel 626 and its related campaigns are deceptive, disguising themselves as videogames and other entertainment when they are really just ads. The filers also say the games solicit personal information from minors without parental consent and violate the FTC’s endorsement guidelines.
It’s unclear how the FTC will handle the compliant, although the agency said it will take a serious look at it. 
Meanwhile, Hotel 626 is just the tip of the Internet advertising iceberg. A new report from the National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) reveals exactly how big digital marketing targeted to teens has become — and how effective.
Digital Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents” takes a hard look at the trend, with authors Kathryn Montgomery and Jeff Chester writing that marketers have gotten especially creative. McDonald’s created the digital world of Pandora closely tied to the movie Avatar. Users explored the fictional planet — while also seeing McDonald’s products pop up within the game play.
Such marketing tactics take advantage of the adolescent brain, which isn’t fully developed, researchers argue. The techniques create an “augmented reality” that fosters impulsive behaviors. It also employs neuromarketing, which triggers subconscious and emotional arousal for teens.
In their report, Montgomery and Chester call on both industry officials and regulators to develop a set of fair marketing principles to guide companies that use digital media when marketing to kids. The duo have experience in this area: They led the successful campaign that led to the passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.