Advertising is FUNdamental
An animated astronaut, apparently sent in from the Federal Trade Commission, is here to tell tweens what ads are really all about. In case you missed it (and it was remarkably easy to miss), the FTC recently launched an online game at Admongo.gov that tries to teach the young'uns about advertising and its techniques, ubiquity and aims, through an online platform game. According to the site, the FTC acknowledges that advertising is an important source of information when consumers need to make product choices, but that kids between 8 and 12 need to become more ad-"literate" in order to "becomes more discerning consumers of information."
As MediaPost covered in an article here yesterday, the FTC partnered with Fleischman-Hillard to create the game and supporting materials, and the CEO of the National Advertising Review Council praised the project for educating without "demonizing advertising."
But how well does the game do what it purports to do? Don't worry. I played it so you don't have to. Or at least I tried to play it.
Using simple directional controls, you navigate your avatar through a 2D playing field of streets, malls, stores and home -- as well as penetrate the depth of the ad creation machine. The main idea in the early levels is to heighten awareness of ad presence. As the character passes digital and paper billboards or bus wraparounds, he or she is to detect the ad. In return we get a streaming video scene explaining what the ad is, accompanied by a quiz aimed at identifying what the messaging is trying to achieve. Is this energy drink spot in the middle of an action sports show promoting healthy activities or a sports drink? That sort of thing.
On the surface, Admongo.gov seems like a contemporary version of the old "Duck and Cover" cartoons of the 1950s or "Donald in Matchmagic Land." Educators and regulators have a long history of ham-handedly co-opting "kid" media in order to speak the younger generation's own language. Lord knows we have suffered enough advergames in the last decade that usually struggle to wrap a product pitch in the hip patina of gaming. There is always a kind of dissonance between the serious and preachy messaging and the otherwise fun format.
Just when you are about to dismiss Admongo.gov as another misfire, it actually starts to feel interesting, if not fun. The overall effect of the early part of the game is to dramatize what some academics used to call the "media environment," the idea that media and messaging are now baked into all aspects of human activity. This is no small point. As the game demonstrates to the target audience, the logos they wear on clothing and backpacks -- and even the bags they carry from shop to shop -- essentially recruit them into the promotional economy. Interestingly, the game play itself is less of a draw than the nicely done streaming media bits that explain and quiz you on the ads you have discovered. The quiz questions do a good job of getting the user to think about the distinction between the entertaining content in an ad and its sales intentions.
Cumulatively, as you play the game, you come to see that there is a valuable and thought-through educational process at work in the Admongo universe. In the mini-mall we see how end caps are paid for by manufacturers and how checkouts are used for merchandising. Cell phones are called out for the slippery way SMS joke subscriptions are marketed.
Late in level two, the art of targeting first appears when the player comes upon a laptop. "Ads on sites where you meet and chat with friends like Ourface often seem to be for things you line. Not an accident. They are based on information you've told the site: your age, your gender, your hometown, your hobbies."
It is only in later levels that we get into the nitty-gritty of targeting and how ads find the right person at the right place and at the right time. I wish I could give you details, but some technical glitch is preventing me for now from entering higher levels. It would be interesting to see if the FTC has explored a better way to explain online user tracking than we have seen the ad and publishing industry devise.
There is more to the program than a game. Through Scholastic and by direct download online, the FTC is distributing lesson plans and classroom materials to teachers to create ad literacy modules. The program was rolled out on "The Today Show" and got press yesterday. Beyond that, it isn't clear from what I have read how the FTC plans to drive traffic to Admongo.gov. Dare I say they could use the help of a good ad network?
But overall, this Admongo is better than one would expect. The messaging is richer and more interesting than the game play itself, and I am not sure that many kids will be compelled to "beat" the thing and actually penetrate the upper levels. Nevertheless, it is revealing that FTC director of consumer protection David Vladeck said the aim was for the depiction of advertising to be "nonjudgmental" -- but to avoid promoting "commercialism."
Just as the FTC urges youngsters to read between the lines of advertising and understand the speaker's intent, no doubt watchers of the privacy issue will be spending some time interpreting and debating the tone the FTC actually does effect in this advertising theme park.