Last spring, the International House of Pancakes launched an online children’s game that was inspired by the Dr. Seuss classic “The Lorax.” IHOP appeared to be serving up a hearty portion of advertising to children, too.That was the conclusion of the ad industry’s own standards police, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, which said IHOP’s placement of menu items and its logo within the game made it too much like a commercial. The panel recommended last month that the firm disclose its marketing intentions to its young users.
The episode highlighted an increasingly thorny debate on how to monitor advertising aimed at children when they are confronted with so many new forms of marketing online.If even the ad industry can’t agree on the definition of an online ad, who can?
The Federal Communications Commission limits ads on television but doesn’t police the Web either.That worries children’s advocates, who say that the FTC and FCC may make distinctions but that to kids, a screen is a screen is a screen — and everything on it looks like entertainment to them.“There is a great deal of research that shows children don’t distinguish between content and advertising,” said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and an advocate of children’s media protections. “Now on digital, there is the opportunity of more blurring of those lines, and the industry is pushing to keep definitions of online advertising broad and unclear.”