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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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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