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Digital marketers are watching the kids

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TESS VIGELAND: You know those lists of hobbies, favorite movies and bands on your online profile? They’re fun to fill out, but they’re even more fun for advertisers. Today and tomorrow the Federal Trade Commission is examining the privacy issues raised by Internet tracking technology. We mentioned yesterday that there’s talk of a do-not-track service similar to the do-not-call list. Commentator Kathryn Montgomery says kids are especially vulnerable to digital marketing.

KATHRYN MONTGOMERY: Teens are growing up in an immersive digital environment. On any given day, they’re glued to their cell phones, sharing videos on YouTube, and hanging out on MySpace or Facebook. These new online social networks are becoming critical tools for adolescent development – encouraging kids to explore their identities, find their voices, reach out to peers and even engage in politics.

But as social networks begin to “monetize” their businesses, the forces of interactive marketing are rapidly transforming them into sophisticated data collection and ad targeting machines. Advertisers are practically salivating over the abundant psychographic and behavioral information that social networking sites can offer. In addition to basic demographics, marketers can glean a wealth of “enormously rich” data. Including personal relationships, ethnicity, religion, political leanings, sexual orientation, or whether a person drinks or smokes. Dozens of new data miners and ad-serving companies have swooped in to “nano-target” and “hypo-target” individual users with personalized ads.

Social networks are just one part of what advertisers see as an expanding “digital marketing ecosystem.” Today’s teens are also being targeted on their cell phones, through instant messaging and in videogames. Marketers are making it fun and easy for kids to create online commercials for brands, which are then distributed widely on the Internet. Companies are crafting one-to-one messages, designed to work at a subconscious level by tapping into an individual’s innermost needs, desires and anxieties.

Most teens don’t realize the extent to which they’ve become part of elaborate, virtual focus groups. The Internet is still relatively young. It would be a shame if we allowed the promise of the new digital media to be undermined by the unfettered growth of invasive marketing. Such trends could turn the online world into a surveillance society.

The loss of privacy is too high a price for reaping the benefits of the Digital Age.

VIGELAND: Kathryn Montgomery is the author of a new book called “Generation Digital.” Send us your thoughts. We promise not to track them. Go to and click on the contact link.

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