HELP HOLD OFF ONLINE RULES;FOREVER YOUNG

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Critics of marketing to kids, making online media their new battleground, are asking for a system of tough rules and guidelines to end what they contend are widespread "abusive" practices by advertisers.

That's a chilly prospect for responsible marketers who value the ability to innovate and experiment in this medium, free of detailed do's and don't's, and we share their concern.

No one should be surprised that marketers' online offerings for kids are being targeted, however. Marketing to kids may seem to many an ad person a routine business activity, but it remains intensely controversial to consumerist and child advocate groups. No one in advertising should forget how television advertising to kids erupted into a full-blown crisis for the industry 20 years ago when the Federal Trade Commission staff set out to ban all TV commercials directed to young kids as "inherently unfair."

The critics, led this time by the Center for Media Education, are now calling on FTC to intervene in the online medium, citing a report that advocates a whole series of marketing restrictions. Much of the critics' proposal could stifle promising experiments by imposing on the online world many of the rules developed for another, very different medium-advertiser-supported TV.

Yet it's precisely because the online medium is different than TV that marketers need to examine carefully some of the complaints that have been raised. Start with data collection using online's interactive capabilities. Heading off fairness and privacy problems here-and doing it now-can pay big dividends later.

Crushed velour seats and cushy boulevard rides don't cut it anymore.

Once used to forking out less than $3,000 for an economical set of wheels, baby boomers today are the driving force behind sales of vehicles that go for ten times that amount.

The fact that boomers are turning 50 is a watershed event for carmakers, as last week's report on auto marketing, jointly produced by Advertising Age and Automotive News, indicated.

Now in their peak buying years, the boomers represent the ultimate prize for Detroit, Stuttgart and Tokyo. Detroit's output of fat, unreliable metal in the '70s, when the boomers were buying their first and second new cars, drove that generation into the marketing-savvy arms of Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Volkswagen. That meant bleak years for Detroit, but the sales adversity has made GM, Ford and Chrysler stronger and they are back on track in delivering far more palatable products, and using sophisticated delivery systems such as interactive kiosks and the Internet to help close the deal.

As boomers age gracefully, carmakers are offering vehicles with high-intensity headlights, larger digits on speedometers and easier car entrances. But don't call buyers hitting 50 old fogies quite yet. As one Toyota executive puts it, "The boomers will reinvent what we call middle age. They were always young. They invented youth."

Fun is part of this generation's psyche-even as they hit 50 they're snapping up advance orders for the Plymouth Prowler and BMW Z3 as their children leave the roost for college or new jobs.

But be careful, boomers. Those children might not be moving out so quickly if there's a slick-looking red sportscar sitting in the driveway that they can borrow for a Saturday night date.

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