PepsiCo Accused of Deceptive Advertising to Teens with Hotel626 and Asylum 626 Digital Marketing Campaigns

--Guest post by Declan Fahy, American University.


The interactive horror-themed websites Hotel626.com and Asylum626.com are the cornerstones of a complaint filed last week by a coalition of four consumer and privacy groups accusing PesiCo and its Frito-Lay subsidiary of “deceptive and unfair digital marketing practices.” The sites are interesting examples of the innovative methods of digital marketing -- as well as the potentially problematic practices surrounding digital marketing aimed at adolescents.

Hotel626, for example, is a multidimensional, online interactive game in which audiences have to solve puzzles to escape from the eponymous hotel inhabited by a demonic baby, a serial killer and a ghoulish maid.

Users “check in” to the hotel by registering their name and email address. They are encouraged to allow the game access to their webcams, microphones and cell phones to participate more deeply in the immersive experience. The more interactivity the user allows, the more intense the scares.

Its an advertisement for . . . Doritos snacks, to mark the fact that two flavors of potato chips were being, in words of an online trailer for the game, brought back from the dead. Asylum626.com, where users have to escape from a mental institution, is the sequel, and offers a more personalized game experience in exchange for users giving the game access to their social media networks.

At one stage in this game, for example, the site invites the user’s entire social network to “save” the player from being killed by shouting into their computer microphones or hitting keys on their keyboards --  in order to distract a murderer. In addition, the game automatically generates tweets designed to look like they came from the player. And, ultimately, users are required to buy a bag of the chips so they can use an infrared marker on the back of the packet to see the game’s ending.

The complaint, filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog and the Praxis Project, argues that PepsiCo and Frito-Lay violate federal trade law because the digital techniques are deceptive in that marketing is disguised as entertainment and a range of personal information is collected without meaningful notice or consent.

The complaint argues that teenagers are particularly susceptible to these techniques, because they “act impulsively,” are “easily influenced by peers, and engage in risk-taking behaviors without thinking of the consequences of their actions”.

I have used the sites as case studies in my Freshman "Understanding Media" class to analyze some of the methods of digital marketing. Where more traditional marketing is about storytelling, digital marketing emphasizes story building, offering users an attention-holding, interactive experience.

Where more traditional marketing produces a finished creative product for consumers, digital marketing involves the user more deeply in the creation of a more open-ended, shared, social media experience.

Where more traditional marketing is transmitted one-way from producers to consumers, digital marketing features strong peer-to-peer dissemination through social networks. 

As an article in Fast Company by Danielle Sacks noted last year, digital marketing is “incremental, experimental, continually optimized – ‘perpetual beta’ – and never, ever finished”. (Incidentally, you can watch the agency that ultimately created the Doritos campaigns, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, explain the concept on their own site.)

It is the immersive experience offered by some digital campaigns, however, that are problematic for teenagers. As outlined by my colleague, Professor Kathryn Montgomery, Professor in the School of Communication at American University (who was part of the coalition that filed the FTC complaint):

Some of these techniques are unfair and deceptive and are purposely designed to operate under the radar of parents and policy makers.  Many of these campaigns are aggressively promoting fast foods, high-fat snacks, sugary soft drinks, and other unhealthy products to teenagers at a time when obesity among adolescents has reached epidemic proportions.

The FTC says it’s currently reviewing the complaint. Frito-Lay, as reported on the MSNBC blog The Bottom Line, said that the filing contains mischaracterizations and that PepsiCo and Frito-Lay are “committed to responsible and ethical marketing practices,” and that its marketing complies with applicable law and regulations.

What do readers think? New media, new methods of engaging audiences, new social problems?

-- For a copy of the FTC complaint, see the materials available via the Center for Digital Democracy.

-- Declan Fahy, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at American University, Washington, D.C., where teaches in the B.A. and M.A. programs in Journalism, the BA program in Communication Studies, and advises students in the Doctoral program in Media, Technology and Democracy.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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