Kathryn Montgomery is a professor in the Public Communication division of the School of Communication at American University where she heads the University’s Center for Social Media’s “Youth, Media and Democracy” project. She also works with the Center for Digital Democracy and the Berkeley Media Studies Group. In 1991, Montgomery founded the media advocacy group the Center for Media Education where she served as President for twelve years before the Center was closed. She is the author of two books, Target: Prime Time. Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television (Oxford University Press, 1989) and Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet (MIT Press, 2007), as well as other numerous publications including the 2007 report Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age which she coauthored with Jeff Chester. Montgomery has been a strong advocate in the areas of youth, health, education, and the democratic use of media.
Her research and advocacy work helped lead to the passage of a Federal Communications Commission ruling which required a minimum of three hours per week of educational/informational television programming for children; a television content based ratings system, and the first federal legislation designed to protect children’s privacy on the internet.
Corporations and Health Watch spoke with Kathryn Montgomery about the new digital media environment, how corporations target children and young people as consumers in increasingly sophisticated ways, and what efforts might be taken to curtail such corporate practices.
CHW: Tell me about your early work on youth, digital media and marketing with the Center for Media Education.
KM: Early on we began looking closely at digital media. Here was a powerful new medium coming into place and not very many people were really looking at how it was going to affect children. The debates were mainly about pornography and safety online. We were given funding in the mid 90s by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to examine the marketing targeted to children on the Web. We also got a research grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to look at Alcohol and Tobacco marketing on the web. Even though there were a lot of people concerned about advertising in traditional media, not enough people were looking at the digital media. And this is where all marketing and advertising are going. If you’re going to do any interventions, you have to understand where it’s all headed. We also wanted to educate not only our fellow advocates and the professionals and academics in the field, but the regulators themselves. So we provided the kind of details that could help them in their investigations. Our efforts to document the marketing practices targeted at children resulted in the first law to protect children’s privacy on the internet.
CHW: Can you give me an overview of the current scope of marketing to youth?
KM: Well you know it’s kind of hard to put a figure on it. I know that at the present time all marketing online figures are something like 80 billion. It’s growing very rapidly, and children and teenagers are a very big market online. It is important to understand that in this new media environment the distinctions between online and offline are being completely blurred and, in some cases, obliterated, so we’re really just talking about an overall shift in the way marketing is done this notion of the “360 degree” approach which we wrote about in our report. The marketing encompasses a lot of different platforms; it is designed to be ubiquitous in children’s lives, following them wherever they go, online and off.
CHW: Although there’s a lot of integration, how is internet marketing to children different than what you would find in television or other forms of media like magazines?
KM: We’re talking about a complete integration of advertising and content. In many cases we’re talking about websites and other digital content areas that are engaged not just in marketing to children, but enlisting their involvement in market research. So it’s a very different, more all encompassing kind of medium and the marketing may be more subtle because it isn’t just that you’re seeing a lot of commercials but it’s a website; it might be an adver-game a gaming site that’s really for a product.
CHW: What can you tell me about adver-games? Unlike product placement, this seems like a very active engagement of youth with corporate marketing.
KM: Right. Some of the advertising in interactive games that we documented in our food marketing report is pretty similar to product placement but it’s interactive: you’ve got players who can interact with the ad. The ads are programmed and the software is programmed to track people’s behavior; they do profiling so that they know who you are. The whole thing is engagement; they want you engaged with these products.
CHW: Have you seen any data that would suggest that this sort of interactive marketing is more effective than just passively seeing a commercial?
KM: Except for those who are working for industry, I haven’t seen anything that really tries to address these things. A lot of market research is proprietary. To my knowledge there has been very little, if any, research within the academic community. I’ve been trying to get other academics to do this kind of research for a long time. I think partly because it’s changing so quickly, it’s kind of hard to get a handle on. And it’s not easy to develop research designs that will work. But if you look at the literature, and we cite a huge amount of it in our report, there’s documentation from the industry that these things are successful. Now obviously they’re experimenting with some of them, some things work better than others, but they are spending huge amounts of money in market research. This digital generation is the most researched generation in history.
CHW: Can you explain how “cradle to grave marketing” works?
KM: Marketers have been saying for at least twenty years, that with young people, in addition to the fact that they have money to spend, you want to instill brand loyalty. So you want to be able to get those young people to want your product at a young age. And now, interactive marketing and this incredible capability for profiling adds new meaning to “cradle to grave” because they can not only get you to feel loyal to the product they can actually follow you from cradle to grave, across platforms.
CHW: What about the tobacco or alcohol corporations that are specifically prohibited from marketing to children, how do they go about this?
KM: Of course they [the tobacco industry] say they’re not doing it, but then their efforts have been curtailed obviously. The settlement with the attorneys general forbade certain practices but we also know that they try their best to use other venues. The work that we did predated that decision because our report came out in 1997, but we did not find a lot of overt marketing online of these tobacco products to young people. Now it’s a lot harder to track. We know that in other media they’ve used the kinds of strategies that are designed to circumvent any rules and regulations and we still have major problems with teen smoking. So whether it’s some sort of peer-to-peer effort, there are all kinds of strategies that these companies may be using. We know that for all product categories targeting youth if you can link your product up with pop culture that’s very successful.
The alcohol companies don’t want any regulation on their marketing and they would argue that they’re not marketing to young people. But what we’ve found, and I’m not sure this has really changed, is that online they make a lot of their websites and their marketing efforts very appealing to young people of course they’re saying that you have to be 21, but there are many ways to get around that.
CHW: Can you describe how the food industry, which is not prohibited from marketing to youth, uses digital media and integrative media strategies?
KM: There are a million different ways they do it and they have really developed a panoply of interactive techniques that are designed to engage young people with their brand. They’re very complicated. Anything from putting their ads on mobile technology, offering coupons, having young people spread the word through email to their friends or working through social networks like MySpace and FaceBook to encourage people to use the brand icon, to putting what are known as viral videos on YouTube. Also there’s user generated video, this idea that you get young people to actually create the ads themselves for the products. Pizza Hut did this: “We can make you the vice president of pizza if you’ll make an ad.” They get hundreds and hundreds of young people, probably many more than that, creating their own ads, posting them, and then it spreads like wildfire. And we also know that food marketers and beverage marketers and others are researching who the most effective influencers are, and are recruiting them to promote brands among their peers.
CHW: How do they go about recruiting these influential young people?
KM: Oh there are all kinds of ways they do it. Market researchers can study social networking sites to find the young people with the largest networks of friends, for example. They have found ways to identify online who the “brand sirens” are, the people who like to talk about brands among their friends. There’s a company called Tremor that recruits young people to be part of this elite group of “tremorites.” It’s run by Proctor and Gamble and they work for other clients as well, including some of the beverage companies. Teens are invited to become a part of a privileged group and then given new products and programs in advance and encouraged to tell their friends about them.
The other thing to understand about marketing, particularly to adolescents in the new digital media, is that a lot of these efforts are designed to tap into the fundamental developmental needs of young people. Young people are experimenting with their identities: “how do I show who I am?” Of course marketers have done this for a long time. But now they have techniques that are even more powerful. So if you’re creating your profile on MySpace, in addition to your friends, you can include the brands that you like and that express who you are. Peer-to-peer involvement and being able to use the new digital media to convey your own ideas and to express what you think and feel lends itself beautifully to viral marketing.
CHW: One of the ways in which corporations go about getting their message out there broadly is through market segmentation: breaking up potential groups into discreet groups that can be reached with unique messages. Can you talk about some of the ways that food, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries go about trying to reach a broad range of young people?
KM: This is a rapidly changing digital media marketplace, so as we speak new techniques are being developed. But what I think we are seeing generally with market segmentation in the digital era is further, more refined and more microtargeted marketing that breaks people down not just by their preferences, demographic groups, spending and zip codes, but by their behavioral qualities that can be tracked online through behavioral profiling and database marketing. The important thing is that with these new, sophisticated technologies and the interactive media, people are marketed to as individuals not as segmented groups. Marketers are able to find out what you personally will respond to and they can adjust their advertising accordingly. And particularly looking at the social networking platforms where they can use the information you post about yourself, it’s incredible what these marketers are able to know about you. I think that most consumers don’t have a clue; I don’t think parents have a clue.
CHW: What’s your opinion about the recent announcement by eleven major food and drink companies to voluntarily limit television advertisements to US children under the age of 12?
KM: Well I’ve been monitoring this pretty closely and I was a speaker at the Federal Trade Commission workshop when the most recent announcement was made. There are some very important limitations to what these industries have agreed to do. First of all, the fast food restaurants were not well represented; we’ve got Burger King, before we had McDonald’s, but that whole industry is still not on board. Secondly, the changes that they have vowed to make are only going to apply to marketing that’s targeted at children under the age of 12. That’s totally leaving out adolescents and I would say its even leaving out “tweens” because they watch the stuff that’s targeted at older kids. Adolescents are very much at risk for obesity and they also make more of their own decisions about what they eat.
They’re not at the store saying, “buy me that;” they’re out in those fast food restaurants with their friends. So they need some interventions and the industry hasn’t come forward with anything. Finally, most of the voluntary advertising guidelines are focused on television, with very few changes to the emerging practices in the digital media.
CHW: Would you say that this announcement was something of a preemptive strategy by the industry to avoid further criticism?
This is a pattern: the industry will try to get by with as little as it can and hope the problem goes away. It will not bring up anything else unless we say “aha, but you’re doing this” and there’s a huge outcry about it and the government cares. So they are way ahead of the regulators and way ahead of the public on this stuff. I’m not suggesting that the industry is doing nothing; yes they are doing something, but they don’t want to be regulated. So they’re doing something to keep from being regulated. We need ongoing pressure on the industry and ongoing monitoring of what the practices are and the government has to play a leadership role. And I think the FTC is, but we’ll see what happens next. This is a longterm problem that’s going to take longterm strategies and none of the advocates and health professionals and other stakeholders can afford to let up the pressure. We have to continue; we’re in here for the long haul and its very important.
CHW: What do you think are the best policy solutions to curtail the influence of corporate marketing on youth and youth spaces?
KM: Well it’s a tough area to regulate directly. I don’t think it’s politically viable to call for a ban on advertising. These bans have not worked in the past. You cannot reverse these trends. But I think you can call for some rules of the game, which could include identifying certain practices that marketers should not use. When you deal with products like junk food, soft drinks, fast food restaurants, alcohol and tobacco, there you can have more restrictions. We haven’t had a very courageous government in the past that has wanted to tackle these marketing practices, and unfortunately the advocacy community has not had the knowledge and sophistication about the nature and extent of digital marketing to push an agenda. But we’re working to try to educate people to really see that there are some areas where interventions should be made and there is a proper role for government in developing them.
CHW: And do you see policy efforts as something that should happen at the national or international levels or is there potential for change at the state and municipal levels as well?
KM: Most of these are global corporations, so I think there is a need for some global initiatives, for groups across the world to work together and for regulatory agencies to work together. But at the same time I think there could be some statebased interventions or local interventions, certainly in terms of public accountability and education. In the tobacco control and alcohol control movement there have been some very successful efforts at the local and the state level.
CHW: What does digital marketing to youth look like outside of the United States? Is it a worldwide phenomenon, or is it more based in developed countries?
KM: We know this is a global phenomenon. In many ways, digital marketing is leapfrogging over national boundaries and directly into developing countries. Marketers are moving in very swiftly and very aggressively in many of these countries and sometimes I think too quickly to do anything about it. At the same time, we need to recognize that there are other critical international policy issues in addition to addressing the role of marketing. For example, we need to ensure equitable access to digital technologies. Because these technologies are a good thing for young people and we still have a digital divide in many places throughout the world. We will also need policies to ensure that the digital media are harnessed to improve the lives of young people.
CHW: In terms of advocacy efforts to change corporate practices, what tactics do you see as being effective?
KM: I think we need a multiple set of strategies coming from all kinds of different directions, at the national level, at the international level, at the state level, at the local level. And we need many more groups and individuals involved. And I think that the press is very important. If the pressure does not involve public exposure and what the health advocates have called “public shaming” then its not going to have much of an impact. You have to put heavyduty pressure on the industry, which will, in turn succeed in educating the public and letting policy makers know this is a problem. Strategic use of the media is a critical part of it.
CHW: Do you think that there’s any potential for digital media to serve as a counterforce against marketing to youth?
KM: I do think there’s a potential. The study we did in 2004 on the Internet and youth civic engagement showcased hundreds of nonprofit websites for and by young people. But we also found that many of these ventures were seriously underfunded. It was really not easy to compete in the powerful marketplace. Nor was it easy to recruit young people to be involved when you have the glitz of a MySpace or the popularity of a FaceBook. So I think they’ve got a lot of challenges facing them. But I believe there’s a huge amount of potential there. There’s a lot of great stuff going on that’s sort of spontaneously built by young people. It’s a wonderful thing that kids can get involved. And a number of young people are launching political campaigns within social networking platforms.
CHW: What do you believe are the implications of digital viral marketing on health and wellbeing of young people?
KM: What people need to understand about the digital media environment is that it is completely different from what we’ve seen before with our conventional media. This new digital media culture is everywhere, all the time, in the lives of young people and not only connecting you to other people, but also connecting you through this interactive umbilical cord to corporations. We are looking at a compelling culture that ties one’s sense of identity closely to corporate imperatives. It is designed to engage us and socializes us at an early age into being consumers. There is positive potential to promote health, so I think it’s not all one way or the other but you need to be very careful that the consumer culture part of it doesn’t smother and overwhelm the other parts. We need a broad public debate about how this new media culture can be a positive force in children’s lives.