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Ads on Webkinz draw criticism


Peggy O'Crowley

New Jersey Star-Ledger

December 17, 2007

 Early on, the wildly popular virtual pet Web site Webkinz got the stamp of approval from many parents who took comfort in its being free of advertising.

No longer. Within the last couple of months, the toy manufacturer has begun promoting children's movies on the site, prompting dismay among some parents, who must already buy real stuffed animals before their children can register online.

"We're hoping they will pull the ads, but it looks like they are planning to have more advertising," said Susan Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a Harvard psychologist.

The advocacy group launched a letter-writing campaign asking Ganz, the manufacturer and producer of the Webkinz animals and the site, to withdraw the movie promos.

So far, two ads have promoted the DreamWorks' film "Bee Movie" last month and Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks," which opened Friday. On the site, children use a code from their stuffed animal to register to create a virtual version of their pet. They can play games, such as Bingo, and earn virtual money, called "KinzCash," to buy their pet furniture, clothing and ac cessories. The virtual "products" include a "Bee Movie" costume for a pet or a piece of clothing worn by one of the chipmunks in the movie.

Ganz has not scheduled any more third-party ads, although the company has not ruled out adver tising in the future, company spokeswoman Susan McVeigh said in a statement Thursday.

A major marketing success, the company has sold untold numbers of the cuddly Webkinz animals. Earlier this year, demand had soared, causing shortages. Retail prices for Webkinz range from $8.95 to $15.95. As a private company, Ganz does not publish sales figures.

Parent grumbling about the ads first showed up on blogs like in October, when the "Bee Movie" ads were posted. Some worried that the ads represented a fast track for future advertising, and others complained that the company was making enough money from the stuffed animals.

McVeigh said that any future advertising "would have to pass our standards for quality, family- friendly products -- we would not allow junk food, products that are violent or brands and/or products that are not age appropriate."

The company must approve all advertising and does not allow linking off the Webkinz site, she said. The site would also retain the "ad vertisements" they currently run promoting healthy habits such as eating vegetables, she added.

Two other similar virtual animal sites, Shining Stars and Penguin Club, do not currently allow third- party advertising on their sites, according to spokespersons.

Retailers said that so far, most parents don't seem aware of the ads and don't talk about it when they buy the animals for their kids.

"We talk to our customers and it's not coming up," said Elaine Jordan, owner of the Learning Express toy store in Westfield, where she said Webkinz sales are still brisk.

As a parent, she's disappointed in the ads. "I guess it's just not the Web site we thought it was," she said.

Parent Lorie Ulllrich of Mont clair, whose 8-year-old daughter Violet is a Webkinz fan, said she did not know of the movie ads, in part because Violet mainly plays with the animals instead of going online.

While she said she doesn't ob ject to movie advertising, she would not welcome any kind of product placement.

"If they start selling cereals and toys, that's entering a slippery slope," she said. "With television they are exposed way too much as it is."

Linn, the Harvard psychologist, said it was too soon to gauge the extent of the letter-writing campaign to Ganz.

"We hope that Ganz will rethink this and come to the conclusion that the millions in dollars in sales from Webkinz is enough for them," Linn said.


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