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Advocate Group Attacks Online Buzz Marketers

Alleges Product Chat Rooms Don't Protect Children From Predators

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The National Institute on Media and the Family used the AdTech conference in New York yesterday to charge online buzz marketers with employing tactics that are potentially harmful to children and also leave them open to cyber predators.

Soulkool.com is a viral marketing Web site designed to attract teenagers into a chat room environment.

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Product platforms
Online "buzz marketing" or "word-of-mouth marketing" are terms usually applied to Web sites and chat rooms set up by marketing companies that look like noncommercial cyber communities but are actually platforms for gathering or disseminating product information.

The institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group based in Minneapolis, said methods used in buzz marketers' chat rooms to engage children in ongoing conversations don't keep predators out.

SexBomb3000
Also, the e-mails sent to recruit young people to buzz marketing sites are sometimes inappropriate, the group charged. Upon registering as a 13-year-old girl at SoulKool.com, a researcher for the institute received an e-mail that said one could "get to know and flirt with other visitors" at the Web site, the press release alleged. Once in the chat room, the researcher was approached by someone who used the screen name "sexbomb3000," according to the institute.

An FAQ on SouthKool.com says the site is designed for people over 13. The site greets visitors with a large banner that says "Come Get Some." The online tutorial explains how a user can use a private "crib" to meet another user for private communications.

A statement issued by SouKool.com founder David A. Elias said "We understand all of the concerns and are taking the appropriate measures to ensure the safety of our members. We have already engaged in dialogue with all of the advocacy groups mentioned."

The institute recommends that online word-of-mouth or buzz marketers should volunteer to have their practices reviewed by the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the National Advertising Review Council -- a review board that major advertisers subscribe to.

It also said that buzz marketers should establish a way to contact the parents of their young recruits. "When kids are being used as advocates for a product, the parents should know what they're doing," said Blois Olson, a spokesman for the institute.

Buzz marketing trade groups
Buzz marketing is a fairly new field. New trade groups include the 6-month-old Viral & Buzz Marketing Association and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

WOMMA was formed in late October and has signed up 21 companies as members. On WOMMA's agenda is to develop a set of standards and best practices, said Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing and customer satisfaction officer at Intelliseek and co-founder of WOMMA.

"I think that everyone is very sensitive to these issues and has an express commitment to address them," Mr. Blackshaw said. "Developing standards for dealing with younger audiences was a huge motivation for starting WOMMA."

Mr. Olson said his group's agenda is focusing on making parents aware of buzz marketing practices and working with trade groups. "We believe that media is powerful and we should use that power for good, not bad," he said.

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