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Children especially vulnerable to increasingly intrusive advertising


October 30, 2007


Newswise — For today’s children and teens, technology fits seamlessly into everyday life. Using the Internet, playing video games, downloading music onto an iPod or text messaging with a cell phone is as easy as flipping a light switch. Although members of this “digital generation” have found ways to use technology to have a more powerful voice, digital marketing has made them more vulnerable to the influence of Madison Avenue, according to Kathryn C. Montgomery, an expert on children, teens, media and online marketing at American University’s School of Communication.

Montgomery’s new book, Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (MIT Press, summer 2007) examines the numerous ways in which digital media has influenced today’s children, tweens and teens. In the book, Montgomery documents how children became a coveted consumer demographic, and that companies – especially fast food restaurants and snack food companies – have responded by subtly slipping marketing messages in everything from avatars to video games. Montgomery says these tactics are partially to blame for the childhood obesity problem. Kids are constantly exposed to the ads and pester their parents into buying the unhealthy foods or, having money of their own, kids completely bypass their parents and purchase the items themselves.

“As early as the 80s but especially in the 90s, we saw more and more products aimed at kids,” says Montgomery, who traced the trend to an increase in the number of working mothers and latchkey kids. “Today, kids and teens make more of the decisions about where the family eats and what they buy.”

Montgomery is offering testimony for the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) on-going investigation into privacy-related issues associated with digital marketing practices. Of particular interest is online behavioral marketing: collecting information about a consumer's activities online - including searches, Web page views, shopping cart behavior, social network relationships and broadband video use - then using that information to target the consumer with advertising that reflects the consumer's individual interests. Behavioral targeting is used by leading companies such as AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft. Google is expected soon to follow suit. The FTC examined similar issues in 2000, when it held a public workshop and issued two reports on the practice of online profiling. Technology advances and the evolution of business models since that time have raised concerns among consumer advocates, privacy experts and others about the implications of data collection in online advertising now and in the future.

Montgomery is a professor in American University’s School of Communication. During the 1990s, as president of the Center for Media Education, she led the way for the congressional passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. She recently co-authored the report “Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age,” sponsored by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy.

American University ( is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the U.S. and nearly 150 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.



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