Monday, June 30, 2008

FCC Inquiry into Product Placement

By way of David Goetzl at MediaPost's MediaDailyNews, news today that the FCC has finally agreed to investigate contemporary product placement and embedded advertising practices in television, radio and cable. The rumors have been flying for the past couple of weeks that this was coming, as both media reformists and unions from the creative industries (such as the Writers' Guild and the Screen Actors Guild) began putting some concerted pressure on the FCC to recognize growing public concern about the lack of transparency when it comes to product integration. Last Friday, the government body issued a split docket Notice of Inquiry (NOI) / Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), and is now seeking comments from the public and relevant interest groups. Here's an excerpt from Goetzl's coverage:
In its notice, the FCC wrote that as product placement becomes more widespread, FCC rules must "protect the public's right to know who is paying to air commercials or other program matter on broadcast television, radio and cable." But it added that the rules must be considered in light of "the First Amendment and artistic rights of programmers."

FCC regulations currently do not cover cable, so extending them to that medium would be notable. But most of what the FCC is exploring could be a game-changer.

For example, one issue under consideration is whether the FCC should mandate disclosures during a program simultaneously as a paid-for sponsorship on the screen. Also up for debate is whether disclosures should be required before or--more radically--before and after a show that includes product integrations.

The FCC has specified that the inquiry will include an investigation into political ads, reality TV, and that new trend of advertising during programming via a banner that pops up along at the bottom of the screen. However, on the issue of embedded advertising in children's programming, there seems to be a little ambiguity. Here's an excerpt from Commissioner Michael Copps' statement:
[T]he NPRM section tees up certain key issues on which we can move directly to rules—such as whether and how to make sponsorship identification more obvious to consumers, and rules regarding embedded advertising in children’s programming.

On the latter point, it is my strong initial belief that embedded advertising in children’s programming is already prohibited because it would run afoul of our existing requirement that there be adequate separation between programming content and advertising. The Commission’s existing policies in this area—which also include a ban on host-selling and tie-ins on children’s programming—target those practices that unfairly take advantage of the inability of children to distinguish between programming and commercial content. I hope we can move quickly to clarify our rules in this area as necessary and to take any appropriate enforcement action.

I'm really hoping that this "enforcement action" will result in some real changes in kids' marketing practices. Although the existing policies might be sufficient -- if they are strengthened, expanded and better integrated (what about cable? what about cross-promotional tactics that seem to loop-hole through existing definitions of "program-length commercial" and "host-selling"?) -- the problem remains that they are not really being respected or enforced. This will have to be addressed. I suppose however that Copps' statement could also be seen as a serious call to these existing rules are tested and retested via the existing complaint system...we'll see.

Although this is just an inquiry, the FCC's announcement just makes me all the more embarrassed by our own government right now -- as the rest of the world seems on the verge of a significant media policy renaissance, our own CRTC is still marching steadfastly (and blindly!) toward media deregulation and corporatization. That said, however, it took the US's initial media policy actions in the 1960 and 70s to get our own government moving again on media regulation, leading to the implementation of many of our better policies and industry standards (including the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children). My hopes for the FCC inquiry therefore definitely also extend to its causing some public pressure of our own to start mounting against the removal of ad-limits and the rest of the nonsense the CRTC has been up to in recent years.

In response to the announcement (and possibly in retort to Copps' assertion that embedded ads in kids' programming is already addressed within existing policy), the CCFC released the following:
We are pleased that the FCC has begun to respond to the concerns of parents and advocates about the erosion of clear boundaries between programming and advertising. The rise of product placement and product integration is turning television shows – including those watched by millions of children – into program-length infomercials. As part of this new rulemaking process, it is essential that the FCC extend existing prohibitions on product placement in children’s programming to include programs watched by large numbers of children. We also support new rules that would require real time disclosure of embedded advertising in programs for adults so viewers can better understand when they are being targeted by marketers. We look forward to working with FCC on this important process.”

All in all, it's always a good thing when debates start spreading into more formal platforms of the public sphere. First the UK and now the US...fingers crossed that this debate makes its way back to Canada next.

You can read more about the inquiry here:
Ars Technica
Commercial Alert
World Advertising Research Centre (WARC)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

New Report: Kids and Consumer Electronics IV

The NPD Group has just released their newest study of kids' media and ICT use, Kids and Consumer Electronics IV. Among the findings released to the public (via press release), lots of useful stats about kids aged 4-14 yrs use of different media forms. Here's a summary:

Bedroom culture
- 75% of children say they use a computer;
- 14% own their own laptop or PC;
- Only 70% say they use a television.

- Ownership rates of portable digital music players (PDMP) have increased the most over any other consumer electronic among this age group in the past 3 years, increasing from 4% to 28%;
- 88% of kids who use a PDMP use them primarily to play music;
- 30% use them to watch video content.

Mobile phones
- 20% of kids aged 4 to 14 yrs own a cell phone;
- 13% of kids aged 4-5 yrs use a cell phone;
- Communications is the most important driver for cell phone use, but they also use them for taking and sending pictures, as well as playing games.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pixie Hollow's Mobile Butterflies

Today's edition of the New York Times has an article by Brooks Barnes on Disney's newest website revamp (code name "Project Playground"), which now includes streaming video of some of its most popular feature films. Counted among the new (and upcoming) features, of course, even more Pixie Hollow accoutrements. I'm not sure if this has come up before, but it seems that the new virtual world will also soon have a mobile component. As Barnes writes:
Mr. Wadsworth and his team are also working harder to link cellphones and So far, the company’s mobile offerings for youngsters — notably constrained by the slow adoption of next-generation handsets in the United States — have centered on casual games or personalization items like ring tones. But Disney now sees an opportunity to create an immersive experience that spans from the Internet to the cellphone.

Consider Pixie Hollow, an expanding virtual world on that is built around Tinker Bell. (Visitors create a fairy avatar and then mingle with others in a fantasy world, playing games and decorating make-believe houses.)

In the coming months, children will be encouraged to log on to Pixie Hollow with their cellphones, which they can use to create butterfly pets for their avatars — which they can’t do online.

Barnes describes Disney's butterfly strategy as a way of keeping up with the company's fiercest competitor, Nickelodeon. The two are neck-and-neck for "most popular" (as measured by frequency of visits) among kids and families, with Disney slightly in the lead for now (with 28.4 million unique visitors in May, according to comScore Media Matrix). But while Disney visitors stay an average of 44.9 minutes, Nickelodeon visitors stick around for an average 79.8 minutes, mostly due to the continued "stickiness" of Neopets (again, all this is according to Barnes' article). With the Pixie Hollow butterflies, Disney hopes to attract some of that virtual pet love (i.e. affective labour) kids just can't seem to get enough of. From the NYTarticle:
"I'm going to want to use my phone to feed and love my butterfly all the time," said Larry Shapiro, executive vice president for mobile content. "That kind of emotional vesting is what we’re after."

See how they've replaced "emotional manipulation" with "emotional vesting"? Mobilizing children's affect for the purpose of commercial exploitation is becoming an increasingly common approach within kids' digital culture. After a few false starts, quite a large number of companies are now successfully reproducing Neopets' Pavlovian approach to "brand loyalty". Cute and funny virtual pets are quick to turn on a neglectful owner - just talk to my Moshi Monster, who is now sick and cranky from not getting enough attention from me or from my friends (i.e. viral marketing). Preying on the emotional bonds that kids are able to develop with various inanimate (see "transitional") objects, and using the language of this relationship in their interactions with kids, these companies are able to be quite overt about their true intentions -- directing kids to online shopping sites, asking them to get their friends to visit as well, showing them ads and rewarding them for good consumer behaviours. Although most of the marketing going on in kids' digital culture is covert and embedded, this is one area where commercial imperatives shine through loud and clear. Just spend twenty minutes "interacting" with a virtual pet and you'll see what I mean. With the incorporation of cell phones into the mix, the newest goal is to make these relationships more-or-less ubiquitous...a neo-Tamagotchi with a dedicated link back to the advertisers, market researchers and all the transmedia intertextuality of the Disney mega-corp. Eep!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Harry Potter Lawsuit and CGC

Wondering about the Harry Potter lawsuit and what impact it could have on user-generated content norms, copyright law, and (though rarely even raised in discussions of this case) kids' digital culture? Me too! As everyone waits for the judge to decide whether or not Steve Vander Ark's The Harry Potter Lexicon consists of copyright infringement or fair use, analysts are predicting that the outcome of the case could have some pretty important implications for the future of digital IP. For example, check out this recent video by marketing guru Martin Lindstrom over at AdAge, in which he argues that the Harry Potter case "underscores the growing threat posed by user-generated content for major brands." Hmmm...either that or the growing threat posed by stringent copyright regimes and corporate attempts to squash fair use/dealings for our chances at sustaining a shared, user-based digital culture.

What troubles me about the Harry Potter lawsuit is that although the accused in this case is an adult, the object under dispute is nonetheless children's culture. I doubt anyone, especially J.K. Rowling, would ever go after a child for appropriating her text...though I'm not so sure that this would necessarily extend to the unlikely scenario of a child attempting to publish these appropriations for profit. But the fact remains that these discussions, lawsuits, and (potential) copyright expansions are taking place within the realm of kids' culture, which will surely have an impact on how this culture develops, what space is allowed for UGC in the future, and how kids' perceive what's allowed and not allowed when it comes to branded characters and stories. I doubt there are many Harry Potter fans - of any age - who haven't heard by now that if you write fan fiction about Harry Potter, you could get sued, or at least make J.K. Rowling very upset with you.

I can hear the counter-arguments already - that protecting the rights (and profits) of the author is paramount, and that in today's digital age it's more important than ever that kids learn about copyright at a young age, before they get themselves into trouble. Whatever - the case for fair use (and fair copyright) has been argued at length and by much more eloquent writers than I, and I would point anyone who thinks differently to the works of Rosemary Coombe and Michael Geist, or to the many background documents being used in the ongoing Fair Copyright for Canada campaign. But I also think that when we're dealing with kids, this issue of appropriation and fan culture becomes even more complex. For the past three decades, research into children's culture and play have found a steady rise in the presence (and prominence) of "media traces" (to borrow Maya Goetz's term). And I'm not just talking about branded toys and games here, but also kids' own imaginative and creative expressions. Examples of how kids' themselves incorporate media characters into their everyday lives include everything from role-playing Spongebob and Patrick, to drawing pictures of Pikachu. And many of the arguments against 'media effects' when it comes to the branding and licensing within children's culture focuses on creative appropriation as an important way that kids make sense of the media presence in their lives, as well as engage with the larger culture, challenge dominant ideologies, co-produce a shared culture with other children, etc. Proponents of this argument point out the various ways that kids manipulate branded toys, for example, in unexpected and even deviant ways, completely disregarding or even subverting the scripts provided by the commercial media. A He-Man doll can thus just as easily attend a tea party as engage in a battle with Skeletor, a Barbie doll can be transformed into a magic wand, and a Lego Racers videogame can be used to stage elaborate and repeated Lego-man seppuku.

But just as I've been arguing (here and elsewhere) that technological design can be used to reduce or even eliminate these types of alternative readings and subversive play practices, I also think that legal systems (such as copyright) can be and are increasingly used to limit, contain, rationalize and commercialize kids' culture. And this happens in a variety of ways - through the elimination of opportunities to generate content, or by placing restrictions on what and how that content is generated (limiting freedom of expression and undermining children's agency); through corporate claims of IP ownership over child-generated content and submissions; and by teaching kids from a very young age a corporate reinterpretation of copyright law...ignoring fair use and obscuring the principles upon which copyright was based in the first place. As these practices become the industry standard (and in fact begin to be programmed right into the design of online games and environments), the space for children to appropriate, manipulate, subvert, make sense of and have some sense of ownership over their shared culture becomes increasingly scarce, increasingly threatened.

For more legal discussions of Harry Potter, I recommend an issue of the Texas Wesleyan Law Review from 2005 (volume 12, number 1), which includes a great selection of articles examining how the law is represented within the Harry Potter universe. I wonder if there are parallels between these textual representations and the arguments put forth in the current the same way that Jarrod Waetjen and Timothy Gibson found intertextual readings of commercialism within and around the Harry Potter franchise (see Harry Potter and the Commodity Fetish: Activating Corporate Readings in the Journey from Text to Commercial Intertext).

Finally, to all my friends and family back home: Je vous souhaite une bonne St-Jean Baptiste!!!!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Canadian Kids Fail to Meet Physical Activity Guidelines, Again

While child obesity rates might be leveling off in the US and France (yay!), the overall health of kids in Canada continues to provide cause for serious concern (if not outright alarm). According to the 2008 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, released last month by Active Healthy Kids Canada (along with the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute - Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (CHEO-HALO) and ParticipACTION), 90 per cent of Canadian children and youth currently don't meet the guidelines outlined in Canada's Physical Activity Guides for Children and Youth. In the accompanying press release, the organization identified "screen time" as one of the key culprits in kids' declining health, describing:
Instead of being physically active, young Canadians are spending an alarming amount of time in front of television, computer and video screens. In fact, the average child aged 10 to 16-years-old reports screen time up to three times longer than recommended guidelines. Children in this age group are typically spending six hours a day in front of some type of screen, which is the equivalent to 42 hours a week or more than a parent's full work week. And, it's not just children and youth. The Report Card revealed that preschool-aged children are not following their recommended screen times with many spending two hours a day in front of a screen.

Their argument is a fairly straightforward one: screen time = inactivity, which is leading to various problems associated with both weight gain and lack of exercise.
"At a younger and younger age, children are becoming dependent on electronic devices as their sources of entertainment and activity," says Michelle Brownrigg, Chief Executive Officer, Active Healthy Kids Canada (Toronto). "Getting our children active needs to be a collaborative effort. Governments, industry, communities, schools and parents all need to share the responsibility of replacing sedentary time with active play."

The Report adopts a pretty comprehensive approach, giving grades to various aspects of kids' lives that impact upon their opportunities for physical activity (and likelihood of being physically active and healthy). For example, the report card gave families a "D" for their perceptions and roles regarding physical activity, a "D" to the proportion of kids and youth actively commuting to and from school, a "D" to the proportion of kids actually using parks and playgrounds regularly, and a "D" to the existence of by-laws hindering physical activity. On the other hand, parents were awarded a "B" for support and encouragement of their kids' physical activity. Overall, it appears that while screen time may indeed be replacing physical activity, there are also many other dimensions to consider here, including lack of community support and very few opportunities for physical activity built into kids' daily schedules.

The Report also provides a set of recommendations for parents, teachers, health professionals, policy-makers and researchers, and call on these various groups to get more involved in the "battle against youth physical inactivity." Some of their key recommendations include:

* Limiting screen time

* Creating as many opportunities for free play as possible [awesome]

* Not relying on 'active' video games like Wii Fit as a source of physical activity

This last recommendation likely ties into statements made by Active Healthy Kids Canada and University of Calgary professor Nicholas Holt reported in the Canadian press this past April, on the Wii and exergames and their effectiveness in getting kids to become more active. Their conclusions were that although "exergames" are a "positive step" and better for kids than just sitting and watching TV (or gaming), "real" physical activity and exercise are still by far the best options.

I wonder if similar findings will emerge from these other countries as well...that the leveling off of child obesity rates (still not a decrease, by the way) doesn't necessarily translate into better overall health and physical activity rates.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Berry Berry Effective PR Machine

I read quite a few stories and blog posts last week about Strawberry Shortcake's new look - the origin story appears to be this New York Times article describing the various children's characters of yesteryear that have recently been "made over", updated to better fit into today's kids' cultural landscape. Here's a copy of the "before and after" picture that was included in the bulk of the coverage:

The new look was unveiled last Tuesday (June 10th), along with an announcement of a new partnership with Hasbro, who is charged with manufacturing the accompanying line of tie-in toys (along with the toys for another American Greetings retro favourite, the Care Bears). There's an obvious promotional angle to all this, and reps from American Greetings are quoted at length in the article, describing the long and careful process that went into choosing Strawberry's new look, as well as their plans for Strawberry's return to the small screen. Here's an excerpt:
For American Greetings, updating Strawberry Shortcake was about leaving the troubles of the modern world behind and playing up a fantasy angle, said Jeffrey Conrad, the company’s head creative designer.

Artists produced nearly 400 drawings depicting new looks, then American Greetings asked licensing partners for feedback. With the drawings hanging in a single room, he told focus group members to put Post-it notes on the 20 that they liked. "We refined it from there," he said.

On top of her new toy line, Strawberry Shortcake is getting a new computer-animated movie and a new TV series, starting next year. This time, in keeping with contemporary nutritional concerns, the franchise will downplay the sugary dessert theme and move, as Mr. Conrad put it, "fruit-forward."

"It's also about creating a cohesive line," Mr. Conrad said. "We’re downplaying characters that were part of Strawberry’s world but who didn’t immediately shout out fruit."

Of course, it's no coincidence that all of this renewed interest in reviving characters and properties from the 80s/90s is happening right at the time when the kids who first grew up with these characters are becoming parents themselves. For a great discussion of this trend, check out Susan Gregory Thomas' article on the commercial mobilization of Gen-X nostalgia. But in the case of Strawberry Shortcake, I'm a bit confused by all of this talk of her new look and new "CG" approach. I mean, I am having major deja vu here....Remember this old "new look" from 2003?:

Or this DIC press release from 2004, about the massive success of Strawberry Shortcake's 2003 "relaunch", which included a new animated series, which was later rerun on CBS' Kewlopolis?

Or the announcement made in 2005 about Strawberry Shortcake's then new live-action series?

Or the widely-publicized computer-animated Strawberry renaissance from 2006, which included the "more health conscious" computer-animated Strawberry Shortcake: The Sweet Dreams Movie and tie-in videogames (for Gameboy and PS2, among others), as well as a
Strawberry Shortcake Dance Dance Revolution spin-off?

Is this a case of mediamnesia, or just another example of the effectiveness of good PR? Likely a little of both.

Update!!!!!: I just read some excellent posts by Amy Jussel over at Shaping Youth about the rebranding of kids' characters...lots of good, provocative analysis, which Amy has followed up on in today's post about the rebranding of Nancy Drew, girls' culture, sexualization, gender protrayal, etc. Great stuff, including a post by Shaping Youth correspondent Dr. Robyn Silverman...I definitely recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Canadian Internet Use

Statistics Canada has released some new, well, statistics about Canadian internet usage habits. Nothing relevant to kids specifically (the survey only covered Canadians aged 16 years and up), but they did include a few tidbits on teens between the ages of 16 and 17 years, which may be of interest, such as:

* 97% of them use the Internet
* 70% have been using the Internet for over 5 years
* 40% contribute content
* 94% use the Internet for school
* 73% play games
* 90% use instant messaging
* 83% download music
* 42% use the Internet to watch TV

You can find out more on the CBC Website, or by visiting the StatsCan site directly. They also have info on the continuing "digital divides" in Canada, based on income (primarily), education and age, which is good to know.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Wonderful World of Disney Gets Back to its Roots: Product Placement

Back in the mid-1950s, Walt Disney came up with an ingenious idea about how to promote his upcoming Disneyland theme park via the then new medium of television -- product placement! His first attempt, simply entitled Disneyland (1954-1990?, ABC), combined animated cartoons with documentary footage of the Disney studios, clips and behind-the scenes footage of recent and upcoming Disney film productions (e.g. 2000 Leagues Under the Sea and Sleeping Beauty), and "sneak peaks" of the theme park itself.

The show won several Emmys and continued on (in one form or another, and under various names) until 1990 (says imdb)... Although as we all know, the Sunday night Walt Disney Presents tradition is still alive and well on ABC, CBC and various other networks around the world. The most famous Disneyland spin-off The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959, ABC) is widely cited as first ever example of "program-length commercials." Like its predecessor Disneyland, Lynn Spiegel writes, The Mickey Mouse Club was "created as one big advertisement for Walt Disney’s theme park" promising children that the fantastic "never-never land" setting of the show could be theirs if they could just persuade their parents to bring them to Anaheim, California.

Flash forward fifty-four years and the House of the Mouse is still up to its oldest of old tricks. Watching Finding Nemo on last Saturday's installment of The Wonderful World of Disney, I was shocked at the intensity and sheer number of the "bumpers" (short, usually network-produced segments that appear before and/or after the ads during a television programming block) included in the programming, heavily promoting Disney's upcoming animated film Wall-E. Through bumps and ancillary marketing, Disney was able to stretch a 100 minute film into a three hour cross-promotional extravaganza...don't "we" (not sure where I should situate myself here - I was watching an American channel through a Canadian service provider) have restrictions on this kind of thing?

Well, sadly, yes and no. Because Disney was using the program to promote another film, and not to promote Finding Nemo DVDs or tie-in toys, it doesn't technically count as a program-length commercial. And those annoying "bumpers" are actually required by US media policy...originally meant to provide a separation between content and advertising, but as McAllister and Giglio point out, "Although their existence is mandated, bumpers can become tools for, rather than against, 'connected selling' in a medium dominated by corporate branding."

Unfortunately, last week's display was not a one-time deal. ABC has similar "events" planned for the duration of the summer. Here's the schedule (courtesy of Cynopsis!Kids):

* Monsters, Inc. (June 14, 8-11p) - hosted by John Goodman (the voice of Sulley), who will be promoting Pixar, by way of animated shorts, as well as Pixar movie-themed attractions at the Disney parks.

* Camp Rock (June 21, 8-11p) - hosted by the Jonas Brothers, who will promote an array of Disney offerings, including the upcoming High School Musical: Get in the Picture, the Cheetah Girls and the One World music video. They will also promote themselves, by premiering their new music video Burnin' Up, complete with a "making of" promotional documentary....let's call it an adumentary. Camp Rock is gearing up to be the High School Musical of 2008, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

* The Haunted Mansion, Saturday June 28 (8-10p) - featuring a behind-the-scenes adumentary of Miley Cyrus' new music video 7 Things, along with, of course, a premiere of the actual video.

* The Princess Diaries 2 (July 12, 8-10p) - in conjunction with lots of promotion for the 50th anniversary DVD re-release of Sleeping Beauty, via an adumentary which will examine the restoration processes that went into getting the film (a beautiful piece of animation, by the way, and the last Disney feature to use hand-inked cells) ready for HD.

* Freaky Friday (July 19, 8-10p) - hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis (who stars in the movie), who will spend a couple of hours promoting her new Disney movie (and serious WTF inducer), Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

* Peter Pan (August 2, 8-10p) - hosted by Raven-Symone, who will be promoting her new animated movie (and Peter Pan spin-off) Tinker Bell...and I would guess the tie-in MMOG Pixie Hollow as well.

I like how they're using the term "host" to describe the actors hired to do the cross-promotions during these programming makes them that much more susceptible to accusations of "host-selling". Host-selling, by the way, is defined by the FCC as "any character endorsement that has the effect of confusing a child viewer from distinguishing between program and non-program material." We have a similar rule in Canada (Which states that "Puppets, persons and characters (including cartoon characters) well-known to children and/or featured on children's programs must not be used to endorse or personally promote products, premiums or services" and that "puppets, persons and characters may not handle, consume, mention or endorse in any other way the product being advertised"). Sounds like a good description of Disney's summer line-up to me!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Licensing Matters: From Toys to Shoes

Reporting this week from one of the US' biggest media (children's!) industries trade show, The Licensing Show in NYC, Kidscreen's Gary Rusak provided some great new stats yesterday courtesy of the NPD Group, all on the theme of licensing and kids properties. In addition to revealing a number of 'top ten' and 'top five' best-selling properties lists in a variety of categories (a couple of which I have reproduced below), the NPD Group offered up some pretty interesting tidbits about licensing, including that the "average retail price of a licensed toy is 48% higher than that of a non-licensed toy (US$10.25 v. US$6.92)". They also indicated that while "licensed toys comprise 27% of total toy industry dollar sales", licensing is also more important in some "super categories" (action figures, other toys) than others (vehicles, building sets). You can read Rusak's article for the stats on children's apparel and footwear, but here are his lists for top-selling licensed videogames and toys (by property) for April 2007 and April 2008:

Top Ten Video Game Licenses

1. Lego Star Wars
2. Madden Football
3. Mario Brothers
4. NCAA Football
5. Pokemon
6. Spider-Man
7. Tiger Woods
8. Tom Clancy
9. Transformers
10. World Wrestling Entertainment

Top 10 Toy Licenses

1. Barbie [!!!]
2. Cars the Movie
3. Disney All Other
4. Disney Princess
5. Dora the Explorer
6. Hannah Montana
7. Sesame Street
8. Spider-Man
9. Star Wars
10. Thomas & Friends

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Children Playing Adventure Rock

Via Prof. Jackie Marsh's wonderful blog Digital Beginnings, news about a recent study conducted by David Gauntlett and Lizzie Jackson on children's use of and reactions to CBBC's new virtual world for kids, Adventure Rock. The study, and its findings were the subject of a paper Gauntlett and Jackson presented at the Children in Virtual Worlds conference, which was held on May 22 at the University of Westminster. You can access a pdf of Gauntlett and Jackson's presentation here, along with several other papers of interest...including one on legal issues in virtual worlds for kids (nice!) by Paul Massey (K&L Gates LLP), as well as one on ethics of researching virtual worlds by Aleks Krotoski (University of Surrey). The presentation documents are pretty bare bones (pdf of powerpoint slides), but if you like what you see you can always contact the authors directly for more info, and hopefully some publications will eventually follow.

Overall, Gauntlett and Jackson's research demonstrates that virtual world play can be a very positive experience for children. According to BBC News:
Prof Gauntlett said online worlds were very useful rehearsal spaces where children could try all kinds of things largely free of the consequences that would follow if they tried them in the real world.

For instance, he said, children trying out Adventure Rock learned many useful social skills and played around with their identity in ways that would be much more difficult in real life.

Prof Gauntlett said what children liked about virtual worlds was the chance to create content such as music, cartoons and video and the tools that measured their standing in the world compared to others.

"Virtual worlds can be a powerful, engaging and interactive alternative to more passive media," he said.

He urged the BBC and other creators of virtual spaces for children to get young people involved very early on.

"They really do have good ideas to contribute and they are very good critical friends," said Prof Gauntlett.

Yay for some much-needed positive academic research into kids and virtual worlds!

Gauntlett and Jackson also identify 8 "roles" that children assume while playing in virtual worlds, summarized in this slide I grabbed from their ppt presentation:

What I really like about these "role" categories is how they cut cross gender and age, giving a much more comprehensive picture of how various different kinds of kids game at different times. For example, "Explorer-Investigator" types, who are most interested in following a quest or solving a mystery, are likely to be "The more confident children, no age or gender difference"; whereas "Nurturers," who are most interested in looking after their avatar or virtual pet, are likely to be younger boys and girls, as well as older girls. There's a lot to delve into here, and I'm really looking forward to a full-fledged publication of findings.

In the meantime, you can read a longer description of the study on David Gauntlett's website. I also recommend checking out Gauntlett's Lego Research project, which was also the topic of his latest book, Creative Explorations. His site is a goldmine of resources, including the ever popular Theory Trading Cards and some good videos to show in lecture.

And be sure to check out Lizzie Jackson's blog -- she conducted a lot of the project's research, and her blog provides some additional details about the Adventure Rock project and info about her own ongoing research into children's social media.

The "Real" Digital Divide: Parents and Kids

From the Center for Media Research, findings from a new Symantec study comparing kids' and parents' internet use (and perceptions thereof) across the globe. The study, entitled the Norton Online Living Report and conducted by Harris Interactive, supports previous findings that parents have a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what (and for how long) their kids are doing online, while introducing a much-needed international dimension to this discussion (I'm thinking about the MTV studies, but otherwise, big transnational studies of this type are still surprisingly rare). Here's an excerpt:
Of thousands of children and adults, Internet users in the U.S., UK, Australia, Germany, France, Brazil, China and Japan, 52% around the world report having made friends online, suggesting that "don't talk to strangers" doesn't apply when in online worlds. In addition, 46% of users who made friends online said they enjoyed those relationships as much or more than friendships made offline. Other online activities ranking high around the world are dating (23%), using social networking sites (50%), and playing games (72%).

The study found that parents in the U.S. think their kids are online two hours a month, but in reality, kids report spending 20 hours a month online. And, 41% of U.S. teens ages 13-17 years old agree that their parent have no idea what they are looking at online.

Additional findings of relevance include (remembering that all of these stats appear to apply solely to adults, teens and children who are "online", whatever that means):

* 35% of US online children aged 8-17 have made friends online (a number that climbs to 50% when looking only at the 13-17 age group).

* One in three US children report that they prefer to spend time with their online friends the same amount or more than their offline friends.

* 76% of US teens ages 13-17 years old "constantly," "frequently" or "sometimes" visit social networking sites. Globally, about half of boys (51%) and girls (48%) visit social networking sites.

* Kids (are we to assume 8-12 yrs here???) take after their parents when it comes to social networking = 47% of US parents and 46% of US children "constantly," "frequently" or "sometimes" use social networks.

* Social networking is even more popular in China, where 78% of online adults and 85% of online children visit them "constantly," "frequently" or "sometimes".

* 35% of American children and 69% of Chinese children report being "very confident" or "confident" in shopping online.

* About 40% US teens (ages 13-17) have received an online request for personal information. (doesn't specify is the requests were from another user or from a site)

* 16% of US children have been approached online by a stranger. On the other hand, adults believe that only 6% of children have been approached online by a stranger.

* On average, only a third of parents worldwide set parental controls and monitor their children's online activities.

The study press release includes various other interesting info, particularly about adult internet use. All in all, the findings are about what you'd expect, although I'm disappointed to see that so little emphasis was placed on international comparisons...although its perhaps more likely that they just didn't include info about the other countries surveyed in the press release (i.e. the UK, Australia, Germany, France, Brazil, and Japan). The release focuses on safety as the key message, concluding that "This report clearly demonstrates a global digital divide between parents and their cyber-savvy children." (there's that "cyber-savvy" term again...seems pretty inappropriate in this context). But I really like Dave Cole's (Senior Product Manager for Norton by Symantec) summary, which touches upon a really important component of parents' oft-reported "ignorance" when it comes to their kids' online habits:
"Two-way communications technologies—things like VoIP, chat and instant message—were seamlessly integrated into online games, virtual worlds, e-commerce sites and more. The integration happened so rapidly that we never stopped to think that we were really connecting with strangers… albeit in an online world. It’s only natural that the relationships that were born online would eventually migrate to the offline world. What surprised us was how fast this migration has occurred and how deeply it has infiltrated nearly every activity, from online dating and networking to online baking and information seeking." Dave Cole, Senior Product Manager, Norton by Symantec.

This reminds me of a conversation I overheard at an electronics store a few months ago between a parent and a store clerk. The parent's very young child (around 5 or 6 years) wanted a Nintendo DS, and the parent was trying to find out whether the device would allow the child to communicate with strangers (it does). The store clerk immediately said no, and when the parent followed up that they had heard in the news that this was possible, trying to delicately describe the news story about a predator using a portable gaming device to approach kids, the clerk mumbled something about that being only true of the older models, but that the new ones didn't "have that" (problem? feature?). The clerk's response was confused, confusing and ultimately untrue, and I think that the entire scenario quite aptly demonstrates what it is that parents and other adults are dealing with (including store clerks, who are often under-trained and underpaid youth themselves) ...a rapidly changing technological environment, filled with rumours and misinformation, where media converge and collide without notice, and where the old rules -- established in no small part by government regulation -- no longer seem to apply.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BarbieGirls V.I.P. Goes Live

Albeit a couple of weeks late, the new, subscription-based V.I.P. section of is now up and available for pay-to-play. As reported in yesterday's Business Wire:
The subscription version is designed to give girls more of what they love about the popular virtual world, including a world four times larger than its original size, with new locations to explore, new games and new experiences throughout the site. The V.I.P. membership costs $5.99 for a one-month subscription and provides access to the truly new experience launching today. Barbie Girls™ fans can also still play on the site for no cost with a basic version of the virtual world.

When they first announced BarbieGirls V.I.P. at the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in April, Mattel reps described that the popularity of its site wasn’t based so much on the tie-in toys as on the kids’ desire to play together online. And it is in the exploitation of this desire, in the production of affect, that Mattel sees the real potential of virtual worlds. In an interview with Virtual Worlds News, Charles Scothon, General Manager & SVP Girls Mattel Brands, and Rosie O’Neill, Chief Barbie Girl, described:
"They wanted the pets, but they weren’t necessarily playing through the fashion plates," said Scothon. "They were really playing online. Where we were saying 'Hey, it's about music, fashion, and online community," what we really found is that it's about online with the supporting sides of fashion, socialization, and creativity. Those are the three pillars that drive the experience."

The play patterns remain fairly similar to when children pick up dolls and dress them, now Mattel is just trying to focus on re-creating that in a new medium.

"We look at how a girl likes to play and then translate that to online," said O’Neill. "We talked to a lot of girls and there were a few things that really emerged. Social play is obviously very important, so the way we translated that online was allowing girls to make friends throughout the site, but also to have a really deep experience, sending gifts and messages, and we give two ways to chat."

I look forward to seeing what the new service provides -- perhaps some actual play activities, and not just more lessons in hyper-feminized consumerism? What this announcement and new service remind me of, however, is the cunning of running a game like this in Beta mode...just like with adult and teen games, the strategy appears to be giving them tons of valuable market research info, player feedback and free labour, as girls are enlisted to co-create the game with Mattel, all within the added safety of the lowered expectations associated with a "work in progress". I'm thinking that the "Beta" status of BarbieGirls and similar games is more important than I first imagined...

Anyway, Business Wire provides a nice run-down of the new features associated with the V.I.P. subscription service, which include:

* A special virtual tiara
* Total access to the Extreme DreamPark [i.e. actual games!!!]
* Access to the Tail Shakin’ Tree House [a shop for virtual pets?]
* Adoptable virtual pets, which will live in their rooms
* The ability to give and receive makeovers in the Club Beauty™ spa
* Access to the Glam Gowns shop, where they can stage fashion shows
* Ability to "invite friends to their personally designed rooms and visit their friends’ rooms" [this feature used to be available to all, we'll have to see if this has changed]
* V.I.P. members-only fashions, accessories and more [just like with the mp3]
* V.I.P.-only furniture and room decor [again, like the mp3]
* V.I.P. only pet accessories
* Multi-player games [!!!]
* Gifts, which can be sent and received among online friends

And, in the "Coming soon" category:

* Earn pink “diamonds” to spend on special prizes
* Play the Sparkle Coaster Race multi-player game
* Customize your character to show off your mood, hobbies, personality and more

Monday, June 09, 2008

Notice of Public Consultation: New Media

The CRTC has launched a review of its regulation (or lack thereof) of the "new media" broadcasting environment (i.e. internet and mobile technologies), and is soliciting research, comments, questions, criticisms, etc. from the Canadian public at large. As usual, the notice of public consultation (which was filed on May 15th) hasn't received all that much publicity (so be sure to pass it on!). But it definitely presents a potentially important opportunity to file some much needed complaints and commentary about marketing to kids online, lack of non-commercial kids' sites, advergaming, data-mining and the slew of other unethical activities that have become common place in the decade since the CRTC first decided not to regulate for fear that it might put a damper on economic development (blech!). Anyway, here's the full text for the call - I'm absolutely going to put something together, and could definitely collaborate on something if the chance arises.
Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 2008-44
Ottawa, 15 May 2008

Notice of consultation

Call for comments on the scope of a future proceeding on Canadian broadcasting in new media

Research and stakeholder views on the new media broadcasting environment compiled in the document released today, Perspectives on Canadian Broadcasting in New Media, demonstrate that the new media environment has evolved considerably since the Commission issued the exemption order for new media broadcasting undertakings in Public Notice 1999-197.

The document highlights stakeholder views on the challenges and opportunities with respect to the support, promotion and distribution of Canadian new media broadcasting content. While the Commission takes no position on the merits of the various stakeholder suggestions, technological, cultural and economic trends point to significant new opportunities for the Canadian broadcasting system and high-quality professional Canadian content on both the national and global stage as a result of new media broadcasting developments.

The Commission considers it appropriate to examine the new media broadcasting environment to determine whether the exemption orders relating to new media issued in Public Notices 1999-197 and 2007-13 continue to be appropriate or to what extent, if any, such orders need to be revised. Fundamentally, it is necessary to determine if the new media broadcasting environment is contributing sufficiently to the achievement of the broadcasting policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act and if it will continue to do so. Public discussions encompassing Canadian new media broadcasting content and access to such content are necessary to explore the contribution by new media broadcasting undertakings to the achievement of the broadcasting policy objectives of the Broadcasting Act.

Given the expansiveness and complexity of the new media broadcasting environment, the Commission seeks input on the scope of the issues, as well as the questions associated with those issues, to be discussed in a future new media broadcasting proceeding, including:

* What is the scope of new media broadcasting?

* Are incentives or regulatory measures required for the creation and promotion of Canadian new media broadcasting content

* Are there any barriers to accessing Canadian new media broadcasting content?

* What other broadcasting policy objectives should be considered within the scope of the proceeding?

Parties are asked to identify, with rationale, the issues and questions that, in their view, need to be discussed in the public proceeding.

The deadline for filing comments is 11 July 2008. The Commission will make a determination as to the matters to be dealt with in the public proceeding following the comment period and will issue a Notice of Public Hearing in the late summer of 2008 outlining the details of the new media broadcasting public hearing to be held early in 2009.

Be sure to check out the notice of public consultation page for full background details, more links to previous public notices, and ideas about what to focus on in constructing a submission.

Monday, June 02, 2008

MTV Movie Awards Go Promo-Crazy

I was pleased to see Rob Salem's article in today's Toronto Star on the unbelievable amount of cross-promotion, product placement and advertising that made up last night's MTV Movie Awards. The event has always been incredibly promotional, but last night's edition hit an all-time low -- I barely remember which movies were up for awards, so much focus was put on promoting current and upcoming releases...films geared directly at the MTV demographic, and championed throughout the awards "ceremony" by their stars. For example, as Salem writes:
Barely 30 seconds into last night's MTV Movie Awards, homeboy host Mike Myers dropped a plug for his upcoming comedy, Love Guru (opening June 20). There was another less than 30 seconds later, and yet another almost immediately after that, with the title Love Guru (opening June 20) projected behind him in great glowing letters at least 10 feet high.

And really, that first minute-and-a-bit laid bare the mercenary heart of the youth-skewed audience-voted awards show: "Free advertising," as Will Ferrell put it so succinctly soon after...


Of course, Hulk co-stars Ed Norton and Liv Tyler were there to present, as were Will Smith, Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman from Hancock (opening July 2), Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson from Get Smart (June 20) ... essentially, anyone with a mass-market movie coming out in the next 100 days.

Using falling anvil "irony" as feigned reflexivity, the embedded advertising included some pretty hilarious sketches (the making of a "viral" video for Tropic of Thunder was especially awesome) -- which just makes it all the more awful, really, because now, even though viewers know the product placement was over the top (and know that the producers know they know), I'm sure many of these clips have already inundated the youtube, facebook, etc. pages of the target demographic.

Promotional content for some movies was particularly intense...and checking into these films' production company credits today, I wasn't too surprised to find that many are produced by MTV's parent company Viacom (or through one of its holdings). For example, Love Guru, Kung-Fu Panda, Iron Man and Transformers 2 -- all of which were featured heavily during the awards show -- are all produced by Paramount (which is owned by Viacom). Another example is Get Smart, produced by Village Roadshow Pictures, which frequently partners with Paramount. Not that the advertising was all in-house of course...many of the films featured were Time Warner or Sony productions, who surely paid dearly to be included in last night's marketing frenzy. *sigh*