FTC Advergame Pimps Aducation to Kids

Apparently, the FTC thinks our kids need a little help understanding the persuasive intent of advertising in the media.

Whether that’s based on the assumption that our kids are kind of dense or that parents are failing to explain how media advertising works is irrelevant here. The bottom line is that the FTC used a chunk of its limited resources to pay a major advertising company (Fleishman-Hillard) to create Admongo: a persuasive game that “aducates” kids about the world of overt advertising (the examples don’t really touch on some of the most popular forms of internet marketing, such as how search engine results or affiliate ads work).

Scholastic (the education mega-corp) helped too, creating curriculum so that this advergame can worm its way into middle-school classrooms (you know, because the public school system has unlimited time to teach our kids all sorts of trivia and is in no way struggling to instill basic literacy, much less media literacy).

There is no indication that parents were involved in the creation of the game and parental figures do not appear to perform their key media literacy roles (telling kids “no, we’re not buying that junk”, monitoring kids’ media usage, and discussing media issues directly with kids).

Admongo = a lot of money and effort spent to teach kids ad awareness.

Since we are pretty ad-aware here, let’s look at this a bit closer. Beyond the unforgivable puns, there are a number of things we should be questioning about this advergame product.

What is the desired outcome of Admongo?

The FTC seems to think that ads work because people don’t recognize the advertiser or the persuasive intent, as if awareness of the advertisement will somehow render it powerless.

What exactly is the expected outcome from Admongo? Kids will be able to neutralize ad effectiveness? Kids will respond to ads they see with a moment of thought and self-reflection? Kids will challenge our consumerist society and begin a bold new world by virtue of identifying product placement messages in a video game? Suuuuure…

Au Contraire, Apple! I am not a Mac!   It is I that shall mark my brand upon you. Ha-ha!

If this were the case, then it would be impossible to advertise effectively to professional marketers and educated adults. I think it’s apparent that this is not how the world works, and ad awareness campaigns are interesting, but unlikely to protect kids from the influence of advertisers, even if kids learn to think like marketers.

Everybody Persuades Kids, Not Just Businesses

What’s ironic here is that the education industry, now including the FTC advergame Admongo, is constantly trying to use the tools of marketing and ads to influence kids. Teachers and parents relentlessly try to influence kids; tell them what to think, what values to have, what to believe in, how to spend their resources, and how to think and feel about themselves and their world.

Kids are bombarded with persuasive messages, some of them very troubling and deeply scarring, from many more powerful and authoritative sources than commercial advertising. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot more psychological baggage from family and grade school than I have from the breakfast cereal commercials I watched as a kid.

If people want to help kids develop into happy, healthy adults, I am not convinced that aducation is going to do much to change lives. Commercial advertising influences us, but we also gravitate toward certain media, brands, and ads because these things reflect some part of us or appeal to us as we already are. I don’t think the advertisers create our internal fear and desires (though they certainly profit from them).

Ads Don’t Make Us Who We Are

Just taking one example that I know a bit about from personal struggle and research: teen girls with eating disorders are typically acting out against a perceived lack of control in their life (typically due to family or interpersonal issues) combined with peer pressures and internal self-image problems. Though you often hear media and thin models being scapegoated for our children’s anorexia, the problem, more often than not, started with interpersonal relationships, not media exposure. Additionally, we gravitate toward media that resonates with us, so in many ways, the messages our kids receive is a function of our kids’ expressed preferences (especially with online advertising initiated by the clickstream of the kids themselves).

Media literacy is a good tool, but I doubt it is going to reach the heart of the matter for many of the serious problems kids face. Furthermore, effective ads play on emotion: fear and desire. No amount of awareness can really overcome a visceral, emotional response. The lack of rational control over emotional response is why people often act against their best interest, and it’s a matter that goes much deeper than media literacy.

If the government spent these funds to create a persuasive game to help kids sort out the negative influence of family, schools, peers, and poor self-image in their lives, I think there would be a greater net positive outcome than spending money teaching kids how to think like marketers.

Advertising Derives Authority from Society

Just because someone runs an ad, it does not guarantee the ad will resonate and convert persuasive intent to consumer action. Advertising is only effective when it gels well with how people are already perceiving the world and themselves. Society and all its collective fears and desires—that is the real source of marketing power and authority. To change which advertisements resonate well with us (and which products or ideas sell), we need to change the way people think and feel. 

In modern times, educators and advocates are using the tools of marketing and ads, such as marketing games, to promote helpful messages. The fact that the FTC has resorted to advergaming to push its ad awareness agenda here is telling.

Let’s use the ad awareness lessons taught by Admongo to analyze the advergame Admongo.

Who Paid for the Ads in Admongo?

The FTC paid to say this to youth:

One government agency works to protect consumers from being hurt by advertising. This agency is called the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.

If anything, Admongo does a great job promoting the FTC as the good guy trying to help protect kids from advertising. I wonder if that’s the real message of this game, and whether the target of the message is actually the parents and public opinion in regards to FTC’s performance on the ad regulation front. If parents think ads are relentlessly invading our privacy and targeting our kids, they might start to wonder why the government hasn’t done more to protect kids (such as Sweden’s ban on advertising targeting kids younger than 12).

What Is the Ad Actually Saying?

Admongo is telling kids that advertising is everywhere, that (among other things) ads give us information to help us decide what products to buy. The messages in Admongo are really that weak. There is no attempt to vilify advertisers (probably a good thing) but it also leaves the player feeling like it was a lot of work for very little revelation. Ads aren’t made out to be very evil, influential, or worthy of this level of scrutiny.

Higher-impact, specific messages with consequences kids care about might have made the experience stronger (fatty food ads linked with obesity and getting teased for weight at school, or athletic shoe ads that promise better sports performance but don’t deliver any changes).

What Is the Ad Telling Me to Do?

Here’s the rub: the advergame Admongo tells you to collect ads. Seriously. You advance in the game by identifying advertisements. The rewarded behavior is PAYING ATTENTION TO ADS. I’m not sure how else to emphasize my confusion and sense of fail with this game design.

If there was more involved, like analyzing or predicting the effect of ads on certain NPCs or designing effective “counter-ads” with helpful messaging that defeats the negative harmful ads (like kids finding a cigarette billboard and creating a new anti-smoking ad to put up in its place) then I might comprehend the messaging in this game. As it stands, the gameplay simply motivates kids to pay closer attention to ads and literally “collect them all” to win. Read into that what you may.

Admongo Summary

  • Admongo teaches kids to recognize ads and some advertiser techniques
  • Admongo’s desired outcome seems to be ad awareness, not encouraging critical thinking or value judgments about ads
  • Admongo raises awareness of the FTC brand and suggests that the government, via the one agency that “works to protect consumers”, is helping so kids don’t get “hurt” by advertising
  • Admongo does not address helpful ads and harmful ads, or how kids might tell the difference

Admongo is trying to influence kids through the medium of an advergame, but failing to explain to kids that some persuasive games and ads might be promoting helpful messages and that others might be promoting harmful messages. This mixed message reduces the overall effectiveness of Admongo.

By asking kids to be media savvy, but not encouraging them to question the value of the media delivering the media literacy campaign, it promotes the idea that kids can trust some messaging (from the FTC, from schools, from Scholastic, etc.) but it doesn’t give them any insight into how they know they can trust certain messages. Evaluating the source of a message is key to understanding its value, so I am surprised that isn’t a central part of the gameplay.

I’m going to have my kids, ages 11 and 13, play Admongo and discuss it with me before I give a final verdict, but so far, the project looks like a slick, glossy advergame that provided a lot more tangible value to the creators of the game than it will provide the players, our kids.

What do you think of Admongo? Does it provide value for kids? Add a Comment

One thought on “FTC Advergame Pimps Aducation to Kids

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s