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In a World of Ads, Teaching the Young How to Read Them

A federal agency is undertaking an effort to school youngsters in the ways of Madison Avenue.

The initiative seeks to educate children in grades four through six — tweens, in the parlance of marketing — about how advertising works so they can make better, more informed choices when they shop or when they ask parents to shop on their behalf.

The centerpiece of the effort is a Web site called Admongo (admongo.gov), where visitors can get an “ad-ucation” by playing a game featuring make-believe products closely modeled on real ones, among them Choco Crunch’n Good cereal, Cleanology acne medication, Double Dunk sporting goods and the Smile Meals sold at Fast Chef restaurants.

“Advertising is all around you,” the home page declares in urging youngsters to always ask three questions: “Who is responsible for the ad? What is the ad actually saying? What does the ad want me to do?”

The initiative is being sponsored by the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the Federal Trade Commission, which polices deceptive, fraudulent and unfair marketing and advertising practices. The bureau is enlisting Scholastic, the educational publishing company based in New York, to help distribute materials to teachers and classrooms.

The idea that children need to better understand how commercial speech differs from other forms of communication is not a new one. Many schools have courses in what is called media literacy, intended to help students analyze various methods of persuasion, among them sponsored messages.

The goal is generally “to help kids start to understand the commercial world they live in and to be alert to, and think critically, of advertising,” said David Vladeck, director of the bureau in Washington.

The belief that youngsters ought to be given additional tools to assist them in deciphering sales pitches has been gaining support as the Internet, and social media in particular, are used more for marketing.

“We’ve had some consumer-directed ads, directed to children, on advertising,” Mr. Vladeck said, “but nothing of the scope, depth and complexity” of the new effort.

As for the tone of the materials, they are meant to be “nonjudgmental,” Mr. Vladeck said, rather than presupposing there is nefarious purpose inherent in ads and that marketers continuously try to trick consumers into buying things they do not want or need.

“The vast majority of marketers sell lawful products to people who can lawfully buy them,” Mr. Vladeck said. “The game says advertising is pervasive and it’s good to know what it is, it’s good to think critically and think whether purchasing a product is in your best interest.”

On the other side of the coin, the bureau was also careful in developing the materials, he added, to avoid giving anyone grounds to complain that the effort “promotes commercialism by teaching kids advertising techniques.”

That tack was praised by C. Lee Peeler, president and chief executive of the National Advertising Review Council, which is the ad industry’s voluntary self-regulatory system. The council operates under the aegis of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, where Mr. Peeler is also an executive vice president.

The bureau’s effort will “teach kids how to swim in the ocean of advertising,” Mr. Peeler said, yet takes “a straightforward approach that does not go a step further and demonize advertising.”

“We were pretty impressed by what we saw,” he added, and the council intends to link to Admongo.gov from its own Web site (narcpartners.org).

Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations agency owned by the Omnicom Group, helped the bureau in developing the Admongo Web site, the online game and the teaching materials.

Asked if the participation of Fleishman-Hillard presents a conflict because the agency is part of the Madison Avenue marketing machine, Mr. Vladeck replied that persuasion is “what Fleishman-Hillard does, and they do it well.”

“They also know the tricks of the trade,” he added. “We’re tapping into their expertise.”

Likewise, the division of Scholastic that is handling the distribution of the materials to teachers and students works with corporations as well as government agencies and nonprofit organizations.

For instance, the division, known as Scholastic In School, teamed up with the Lexus unit of Toyota Motor for the Lexus Eco Challenge, a curriculum meant to teach teenagers about the environment.

“We help teachers explain the world around them to the children,” said Ann Amstutz Hayes, vice president at Scholastic In School. For the bureau, “we’re informing the kids about advertising,” she said, “because it’s so important they understand what it is and make informed decisions.”

The reason the curriculum is being aimed at students in the fourth through sixth grades is because that is when “they’re at the stage they’re developing their critical-thinking skills,” Ms. Amstutz Hayes said.

Mr. Vladeck said he hoped that with Scholastic’s assistance the bureau would be able to “get into a couple hundred thousand classrooms” around the country. The effort is being financed by “a little over $2 million,” he added.

The bureau is especially pleased with the online game, Mr. Vladeck said, adding that he has played it himself. “I was not able to get past Level Two,” he said, laughing. “My 12-year-old nephew, in 45 minutes, was already on Level Four.”

The bureau will announce the initiative on Wednesday at a news conference and on the “Today” show.

Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.”


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. April 26, 2010

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