Since 1 April, it has been illegal to advertise
junk food to children on telly. But online, the
rules are different.
Imagine a burger bar where most of the customers
are under 18 and visit without their parents.
There's a non-stop stream of burgers, fries and
fizzy drinks for free. And the man behind the
counter trills that a burger is "the food of the
Nothing is branded, but ask for a drink and you're
told to "Obey your thirst" - the instantly
recognisable marketing slogan for Sprite.
This place actually exists and, not surprisingly,
it's wildly popular with burger-loving teenagers.
It's not in the real world, thankfully, but online
in Habbo, a virtual chat forum for teenage children.
Founded by a Finnish company in 2000, it has seen
over 78 million visitors around the world, and
receives seven million visitors each month. Ninety
per cent of those are below the age of 18.
Users create their own little characters, called
Habbos, which can explore public areas, such as a
beach, restaurants, or cafes, and set up their own
rooms. They can meet other young people under the
watchful eye of moderators who make sure nothing
untoward is going on.
It's an attractive platform for advertisers;
music label EMI is currently promoting its Now 67
album, the latest in a long-running series of pop
compilations. Music is fairly uncontroversial, but
other things companies want to sell to teens are
not, especially unhealthy food.
Worldwide, Habbo has run campaigns for numerous
makers of what many would consider to be junk food.
In the US, for example, it's running a campaign for
a new snack called Cheez-it Stix and in July Habbo
ran a campaign for Fanta in the UK.
This is a curious grey area in advertising
regulations, where things that would not be allowed
on television are perfectly legal.
Some things could never feasibly be controlled. It's
hard to see how companies could be stopped from
promoting whatever they like on their own sites, and
pages hosted abroad, where rules don't apply, will
always easily accessible from Britain.
But there are areas that do fall under the
Advertising Standards Authority's remit: paid-for
advertising on third-party platforms, such as Habbo.
But the rules on advertising high fat, sugar and
salt foods on television don't apply to paid-for
advertising space online.
ince the Fanta campaign closed, Habbo hasn't run
any campaigns marketing junk food, but there are
plenty of messages that subtly imply that burgers
and fizzy drinks are a good thing.
The site includes an area called the Habburger bar.
It's a room made up to look like a normal branch of
a fast food restaurant.
Go to the counter, and there's a bloke in a Santa
hat called Phillip, who responds to requests for
food. Ask for a Fanta, say, or a Coke, and he
replies "Obey Your Thirst! Obey your thirst" - the
advertising slogan of Sprite. Could this be a subtle
subliminal marketing campaign?
Apparently not. Phillip is not a real person, but a
"chatbot" - a character who appears to be real but
is actually just delivering computerised responses.
A spokesperson for Habbo UK assured Channel 4 News
that the "Obey your thirst" line was a total
"It is not our intention to promote a fast food
brand, or any brand, within these replies and the
programmed responses are currently under review to
ensure they are not misleading," she said.
'Habbo teens ... come to explore and interact
with the engaging online virtual world that is
similar to theirs offline.'
A week later, Phillip had been reprogrammed. He
now greets visitors with the words "Help yourself to
However, the place hardly promotes a healthy eating
message. Ask for salad, and he replies, "do you want
that with or without fries?"
I said "without" but was given fries anyway. And no
salad. And if you don't want burgers there's a pizza
place next door.
The site's spokeswoman said the burger restaurant
was just part of the process of making Habbo look
like the outside world as teenagers experience it.
"Habbo teens ... come to explore and interact with
the engaging online virtual world that is similar to
So this may not be part of a subliminal marketing
campaign for Sprite but there is some well-disguised
marketing going on in there. Ask for a bar of
chocolate in another part of Habbo - the Ice café -
and you'll be offered fairtrade chocolate.
This is part of a marketing campaign by the Divine
chocolate company. They invited kids to go into the
Ice Café area and shout "stock the fairtrade choc" -
as detailed on the Dubble website. As a result,
Habbo now stocks fair-trade chocolate.
'[Habbo] offers an innovative and cost
effective way to communicate and interact with
the teen demographic, build brand loyalty and
modify consumer behavior.'
Sulake, Habbo's parent corporation
Virtual burgers don't make children fat, of
course, and however boring the summer holidays may
get, there can't be many kids who would choose to
spend them eating digital salad.
But virtual habits will feed over into real world
behaviour - at least that's what Sulake, Habbo's
parent corporation, says on its website.
Habbo, it says, "offers an innovative and cost
effective way to communicate and interact with the
teen demographic, build brand loyalty and modify
"Habbo pushes traditional online marketing campaigns
into a virtual, activity and identity driven world,
where the advertisers have the opportunity to become
It does seem to be a curious loophole - that
advertisers can do on the internet what they can't
do on television. As virtual worlds for children
grow in popularity, is it one that should remain