Monday, December 21, 2009

Brief Hiatus - the Christmas edition

Just wanted to let readers and friends know that I won't be posting again until after the holidays. Christmas vacation started early this year (yay!), but I'll be back with a new post before the New Year. Merry Christmas and/or happy holidays to you and your loved ones...hope it's a good one!!!

(via Geeksugar)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Habbo Reveals the Depth of Corporate Surveillance in VWs

Via Emily Claire Afan at Kidscreen online, news this week that Sulake is expanding its already impressive data mining services to advertisers and third-party data collectors, by enabling companies to "track" how, when and why certain topics come up in the everyday "in-world" conversations of players of teen-targeted virtual world Habbo Hotel. The company calls the service "Habble," and describes it as a new "brand measurement tool". What it really does is allow companies to buy access to players' thoughts and peer interactions, through an ongoing and highly context-sensitive tracking of "brand names, slogans or key phrases" in player-to-player chat. The data is then mapped out to enable identification of peaks and drops in the rate at which the word/brand/phrase features as a topic of conversation. The client companies can also contrast these fluctuations with other events, promotional initiatives (either in-game or IRL), measurement variables, players' plans for the coming weekend, etc., etc. As Afan writes:
More than 155 million registered avatars controlled by users 19 and younger are part of the global Habbo community and Habble will enable marketers to measure brand names, slogans or key phrases used over a defined period. Data is updated daily, displayed and analyzed in a chart that maps activity peaks. The tool does not grant access to personal info of Habbo users, but monitors the level of brand mentions and then cross-references them with other measurement data.

As Afan -- and the Sulake press release -- points out, the tool doesn't grant access to the players' personal info...but then again, it doesn't have to to be effective. The fact that the company already knows so much about its players, along with the very flexible ability client companies are given to cross-reference with other measurement data, makes a lack of "personally identifiable info" almost irrelevant. You don't need to know someone's name or address when what you're aiming to find out is whether a particular brand strategy is more or less likely to work on girls aged 12-14 living in the suburbs who spend time in Habbo talking about how much they like both Vampire Weekend and Red Bull. And isn't most market research "anonymous" in this respect anyway? Tracking trends among demographics - groups of people with similar characteristics and/or interests - isn't exactly dependent on individual names and phone numbers.

The tool has already gone through a trial run, back in September, in partnership with MTV International - wherein it was used to track a campaign promoting the MTV European Music Awards. According to the Sulake press release, "After the campaign commenced in September, Habble showed that conversations around the awards were up by 371% in the UK and 762% in the Netherlands." As the press release makes quite clear, however, ad effectiveness is not the only thing companies will be able to measure:
Brands not directly engaging within the virtual world can also use Habble to analyse teen perceptions amongst product categories. This allows brands to see conversation levels related to messages targeted at young people, which could help shape future marketing plans.

Sulake describes Habble as "fly on the wall marketing insight into the hard to reach under-18’s demographic." This is a somewhat innocuous way of portraying what actually amounts to 24-7 corporate surveillance -- spying on players and recording their conversations, all in the aim of finding out more about their preferences, daily habits, and how to more effectively exploit their deepest desires.

Of course, the language used in the corporate materials is much more flippant, calling kids "media savvy" and highlighting their presumably vast ability to identify online marketing. At one point, they describe:
Teens today expect to engage with brands online and are aware of online marketing and advertising campaigns. Habbo research shows that 75% of users accept advertising promotions in Habbo and 56% tell their friends about promotions they have seen; 17% say they do this often.

Note that there is absolutely nothing in there about teens being aware or okay with having their conversations recorded and analyzed to "help shape future marketing plans." And note that the generalization about "teen awareness" ignores much of the research on kids' and teens' online literacy, which can be awesome in some areas, but poor in others -- especially about things like data mining and copyright, which they mostly "learn about" from companies rather than objective third parties. The Sulake argument ignores well circulated studies, such as Turow's research showing that both kids and adults often assume that the mere presence of a privacy policy means that their info will be protected.

Not to mention the clear evidence that the depth and breadth of current data mining practices are misunderstood by even the most digitally literate adults. Which leads me to wonder if we'll hear even half as much about Habbo's new initiative as we do about Facebook selling their (adult) users' information.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Possibility to Clean and Buy Stuff Shop

Via the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Advertising Age magazine, news (well, Thanksgiving-leftover news) of the recent online launch of Disney's newest kids' program The Possibility Shop. Described by AdAge as Disney's "First Branded-Entertainment Program," The Possibility Shop is a DIY Craft show for kids and "moms" (according to the official "About" description) staring Courtney Watkins, an author/TV personality who specializes in crafts and "Creative Adventures" (i.e. crafts and games). More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the program is also:
[A] web video series at produced with the Jim Henson Co. and exclusively sponsored by Clorox. The series was customized in part to promote Clorox brands, including Clorox disinfecting wipes, toilet-bowl cleaners and the new Clorox 2 laundry pre-treater, but the episodes will not feature any use of the products themselves. Instead, each episode will be accompanied by a Clorox-branded vignette showcasing how each brand can help clean up the home, a common task among the characters in "The Possibility Shop."

Yikes, yikes, yikes, on so many levels. First, there's the blatant and clearly over-reaching commercialization, which surely pushes (I would say exceeds) the limits of existing regulations around advertising to kids. But second, and no less disturbing, are the archaic gender discourses that arise from a craft show, most likely targeted to girls and already explicitly targeted to women ("moms"), that is not only sponsored by cleaning products but "commonly" features cleaning as a key theme of the show itself. I'll delve a little deeper into the gender implications after addressing the commercial/regulatory issues. But first, a brief synopsis of The Possibility Shop pilot webisode.

Episode One: Thanksgiving
The first webisode is quite brief. The first segment lasts 3min 26sec, and starts with an introduction of the show and its mission statement by Courtney Watkins, focusing on the current holiday episode and the surrounding web features, which include plenty of ads and links for Clorox products. Following the intro (which just features Courtney talking directly to the audience from a white sound stage) and a short title sequence, is a short episode about finding something to do at the kids' table during Thanksgiving dinner. The activity is presented as a solution to a problem a "girl guide"-like child friend of The Possibility Shop, Ivy, presents to Courtney. The idea is that she'll get a new Thanksgiving-themed badge for creating table "the best Thanksgiving Kids' Table ever." Courtney suggests a game that facilitates turn-based storytelling, which she calls "Fascinating Factoids". A third character, Mix, is involved throughout the exchange, contributing funny quips and some physical comedy. His job at the shop is undefined, but for now he appears to be Courtney's assistant. After demonstrating how the game works, Courtney and Ivy get to work on preparing the game at the crafts table. The camera pans to a "hand puppet" housed in a picture frame on the wall, who gives further instructions and advises the viewer to visit the Family Fun website.

This is followed by a 90 second ad for Clorox, featuring Courtney and Mix, and set within a back room of The Possibility Shop with a large bookcase full of Clorox bleach/laundry detergent and other cleaning products. Mix has some spaghetti sauce on his shirt, which Courtney sees and suggests that he recycle the shirt as fabric for a quilt. As soon as she walks away to do some "Possibility Shopping", Mix hears a disembodied voice from above - "Mother Knowsbest" - who advises him that with the power of Clorox he can save the shirt. She then talks him through a step-by-step spot cleaning session using Clorox, which she describes using the same ever glowing terms featured in Clorox ads and slogans.

The ad segment is followed by another, shorter segment of original content that lasts 1 min 14 sec. This includes a 40 second follow up with Ivy (who tells us the game was a big success), and then a separate segment set in the white sound stage from the introduction, where Courtney suggests using the extra pieces from incomplete puzzles as the basis for a drawing. Just look at it until you're inspired.

The webisode ends with a straight up 30 second ad for the same Clorox laundry detergent featured in the earlier ad segment, featuring a group of young moms touring a Clorox "test lab". The screen then resets back to the first segment.

Neither of the ad segments can be fast forwarded, paused or skipped. If you click on the ad segment while it's playing, a new browser window opens up to a Clorox website. Both ads carry a subtitle-style text warning that the content in question is an advertisement and that the program will resume in x number of seconds (counting down as the ad runs its course). Significantly, when I watched through the entire program a second time, the ad warning was gone. The ability to skip the ad was not.

Possibility Shopping
AdAge hints that while the show may not meet television ad standards, "slightly different rules apply on the web." However, while it's true that slightly different rules apply to the web, I'm doubtful that the show as is meets the FTC- FCC's web standards either, especially in regards to "Host Selling". According to the FCC definition, Host Selling includes "any character endorsement that has the effect of confusing a child viewer from distinguishing between program and non-program material." And as far as web content goes:
The FCC’s rules permit the sale of merchandise featuring a program-related character in parts of a related Web site that are sufficiently separated from the program to mitigate the impact of host selling.

There is certainly very little in terms of "look and feel" to distinguish the Clorox ads from the rest of the content. The setting simply looks like another room in the Possibility Shop, a conclusion supported by Courtney's movements through the scene. The characters are the same ones that appear in the program content, playing the same roles, referring to the same themes (quilting, Possibility Shop, etc.). Even the editing fails to provide a definitive cue that the segments are ads, seeing as the regular content is also broken up into sections, for e.g. switching between the white sound stage and the Possibility Shop. Although there is a text warning that the ads are "advertisements," the warning disappears with repeat viewings. I highly doubt that the show meets the criteria outlined above, even if it is online instead of televised.

Not that this is all that surprising, but the webisode also fails to provide any meaningful content in between its promotions of Clorox. Is it just me, or is there a shocking lack of crafting & creativity? The "Fascinating Factoids" game sounds fun and all, but it doesn't exactly scream craft skills or DIY. Even here, there is little time dedicated to showing kids how to prepare their own versions of the game. The note-sized construction paper cut-outs are already prepared in advance, neatly contained in a fish bowl before Ivy even steps into the room. And just as they're about the show Courtney and Ivy writing out their personal factoids on the paper cut-outs, the camera pans over to a "hand puppet" who gives some brief instruction about asking a parent to write your factoid for you if you can't write clearly enough (which seems wrong somehow, bypassing an opportunity for young writers to practice their craft), and then just promotes the Disney Family Fun website. The game is so simple that it might not need much detailed instruction (although you can download these from another page on the Possibility Shop website), but the lack of any substantial guidance or instruction - both for the factoid game and for the "puzzle piece" idea - just makes the enormous emphasis placed on spot cleaning all the more noticeable.

It also looks as though The Possibility Shop is not the only branded property Disney is trying to build these days. The AdAge article goes on to interview Brad Davis, Disney Online's VP-advertising sales, who describes that:
Disney sites have gotten more flexible in partnering with advertisers in recent months. A partnership with Walmart called "Rock Out Your Zone" made its debut in June on and promoted Walmart's teen-targeted furniture line, Your Zone.

"Everything we've created before that has been Disney-driven. Now we've flipped that model where in our case we're creating the product with the advertiser's needs in mind and with the [online] guest's benefit," Mr. Davis said.

As for Clorox, they maintain in the article that the "intended audience is moms, but Ms. Liu [a representative from Clorox's digital media arm] said she expects they will view the webisodes with their kids." Clearly, the tone and mode of address taken in the Thanksgiving webisode is aimed at children - you don't tell a mom to ask her parents to help her write out a factoid. But this does highlight a pretty strange facet of the show - the nature of the sponsor product itself. Laundry detergent with bleach isn't exactly something you want kids getting into, and since there's very little in the program to either indicate that the product placement/host selling is aimed at selling a product OR that it is intended only for adult viewers, this particular nuance seems more like a PR attempt to hide the glaring contradictions of a very iffy marketing strategy.

The AdAge article doesn't comment too much on this, but they do admit that "Products such as toilet-bowl cleaners may seem like a stretch for integration with Muppets." And a bit of a stretch for a kids' show, no?

Craft and Clean
A deeper consideration of the product itself brings me back to my second point, which is the gender politics of a show that tries to integrate play & crafts with cleaning at all, but particularly in a show that seems to be so clearly targeted to girls. In follow up to my post a couple of weeks ago, there is a long history of problematic links between girls' "craft" toys and domesticity, the implications of which seem to be epitomized in a craft show that so heavily emphasizes cleaning and laundry. This includes implications in terms of the continued instrumentalization of girls' play -- play that emphasizes productive outcomes rather than fun and enjoyment -- along with the ongoing emphasis found within girls' culture on activities that work to reproduce and reinforce traditional ideals of "femininity" and "domesticity".

Despite the fact that the cleaning scene depicted in this particular webisode features a man as the one actually doing the cleaning, the associations are much clearer here than in most of what I've seen so far in the commercial construction of "kids craft culture" (by which I mean media and products aimed at commercializing arts & craft....not to be confused with the cultural practice itself). First, Mix cleans under the instructions of the disembodied female voice of "Mother Knowsbest" (a strategy often used in television ads for cleaning products as well, wherein the man doesn't know how to clean and a woman or voiceover shows him how). Second, in positioning itself toward a predominantly female audience (though we'll have to wait and see the ads, etc., to draw any final conclusions about the demographics of the child component of the target audience), its underlying message of play and cleaning as a) intertwined and b) appropriate activities must also be seen as necessarily aimed at female viewers.

Of course, many would say that learning to clean up after oneself is a key lesson that all kids should learn, one that stands in stark contrast to the larger commercial culture's promotion of hedonism, waste and ephemera. But the messages being communicated in Possibility Shop must be seen within the larger historical & social contexts specific to girls' culture, wherein cleaning, care taking and home making are not only prevalent but often hegemonic - squeezing out alternatives until you're left with a bright pink girls' toy aisle that could serve as a diorama of western gender stereotypes. For example:

This is hardly the only Disney initiative that contributes to this regressive approach found throughout girls' culture. But it is a particularly sad missed opportunity to make some of those links between crafting and empowerment discussed in my previous post on this topic.

Important note - there are a couple of other things I noticed that are perhaps worth mentioning. Not only is Mix the one depicted cleaning the shirt, but Courtney actually proposes turning the stained shirt into a quilt rather than try to clean it. She also doesn't hear the voice of "Mother Knowsbest," and although she moves in and out of the ad segment compiling a "Possibility Shopping List," she doesn't engage with the Clorox products in any way. She doesn't even look at them. I'm not sure what this distancing is supposed to imply, but reading through Courtney Watkins' very non-commercial website, there may be a hint of tension here in terms of the different interests going into the show's production, or evidence of some underlying awareness of traditional gender roles/representation and the need to avoid going too far with the associations. I admit that this is perhaps wishful thinking on my part, and perhaps even part of the advertising strategy to avoid sullying Courtney's image with product shilling, but nonetheless worth keeping an eye on in the episodes to come. [**Note: I was waiting for today to post about this because the Possibility Shop site said there would be a new episode today, but there seems to be some sort of delay. I'll try to update this post once the next show becomes available]

The companies involved are treading on pretty tenuous ground with this one, so this particular show may not be around for much longer. Then again, it could also just as likely evolve into a full blown television series. Seeing as the FCC recently held a public consultation on product placement in kids media (check out Shaping Youth's filing here), the time seems pretty ripe for a crack down on these kinds of initiatives. But, of course, the precedence isn't all that good when it comes to extending media regulation these days. Either way, however, I'm dismayed to see Disney barreling down this particular trajectory.