Do Game Companies Market Violent Video Games to Kids?
In 2007, the FTC released the report Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children to Congress. The study found that videogame companies did not specifically target children under 17 to advertising for M-rated videogames. Another finding was that for television shows that are popular with teen and young audiences, commercials for M-rated games have diminished. On the web, it's a different story. In nearly 45% of the sites that have a large under-17 audience, they still show ads for M-rated games. I'm sure that some would see that last statistic as hard evidence that videogame companies are marketing violent videogames to kids.
As a marketer who's controlled online advertising for hundreds of clients, a differentiation needs to be made. If I were to contact The Escapist and purchase placement for my ads, that's what's called a "media buy". While the details of media buys vary, it's an arrangement between a site and an advertiser to show ads. If I were placing media for Epic Games' Bulletstorm, the last place I would arrange a media buy would be on the Cartoon Network site. I'd be all over Adult Swim's site, but not Cartoon Network's.
Another, more common way ads are served is through an advertising portal like Google's Adwords. There I can set up a banner campaign, set the general categories like "games" and let the ads fly to sites I've never even heard of. Websites make an arrangement through Google to show those ads and those ads are displayed with no effort. While both the publisher and the advertiser can filter our particular sites, ads and companies, it's not a perfect system. Without constant monitoring, it's very easy for an M-rated game to get advertised on a site popular with kids. Fortunately, from my experience, most advertisers and professional publishers actively monitor the ads and filter our ones that are not appropriate for their audience.
With all that said, the evidence shows that when a M-rated game is marketed to an audience under 17 years old, it's rarely a targeted campaign. Do marketers target children for violent games? Generally, no. Are children under 17 exposed to marketing for M-rated games? Frequently, yes. Remember EA's Dante's Inferno ad during the Super Bowl? As one of the most highly watched TV events, a large portion of that viewing audience was under 17; consequently, they were exposed to the marketing of a M-rated game. Was that audience targeted? Absolutely not.
With the adoption of the ESRB, associations like the EMA, (Entertainment Merchants Association) and The ECA (Entertainment Consumers Association) work hard to educate parents and consumers about the content of the games. Game marketers, developers and publishers understand that marketing a violent videogame to kids would not only be a PR disaster, it would invite investigations and it would hurt sales. When we hear consumer groups clamoring about marketing games to kids, they're usually talking about the exposure of games to kids. World of Warcraft Mountain Dew can be found at grocery stores. Fast food stores promote movies and videogames. To claim that kids are being targeted to buy violent videogames reveals a distinct misunderstanding and misinterpretation of marketing. While the distinction can be fuzzy, generally when marketing a videogame in a place where all age groups visit, saying they're marketing videogames to kids is like saying they're marketing to bald guys.
What Can We, As the Game Purchasing Public, Do?
As a father and as a marketer, I understand that marketing is manipulation. To lessen the influence of marketing on kids, avoid channels that heavily use child-targeted marketing. Using a DVR to fast forward commercials is a great way to stick to the content of the show and not the marketing. Keep educated on the ESRB ratings and use the game purchasing event to display good consumer behavior. Teach kids about comparison shopping. Lastly, use the resources and information provided to you by groups like The Entertainment Consumers Association, (The ECA).
I recounted my own experience with videogames as a child because I remember how badly I wanted to play that game. The desire didn't come from direct marketing, it came from exposure. Exposure can be a powerful motivator to influence a child, especially when it's in a media form as innovative and creative as videogames. These kinds of issues, especially as the average age of gamers increases, become more meaningful to us as we start to have families of our own. Understanding and identifying these pressures, whether they come from marketing or whether they come from videogames just being cool , can create teachable moments that can make kids become better equipped to make good consumer decisions.