Ad Report Card

World of Adcraft

The government video game that teaches kids about the perils of advertising.

Lately, I’ve been playing a video game called Admongo. Its graphics seem on par with those I remember from the 1982 Atari hit Pitfall!, and the extent of its action is that you run around, jump up and down, and collect some gold coins. You don’t get to shoot any aliens, steal any cars, or maim any prostitutes. Instead, you learn how to identify modern marketing techniques and immunize yourself against them. Game on!, the new Web site from the Federal Trade Commission, seeks to educate kids ages 8 to 12 about the nuances of marketing. In the Admongo video game, players confronts advertisements at every turn—at bus stops, in magazines, on TV, even as part of other video games within the video game. Whenever an ad appears (they’re all for fictional products, including a soda, a cereal, a movie, and an acne wash), the player is encouraged to ask three questions: Who is responsible for the ad? What is the ad actually saying? What does the ad want me to do?

I applaud any effort to make kids wise to marketers’ manipulative tactics. And deconstructing ads seems like a useful exercise for schoolchildren, forcing them to contemplate strategy, psychology, demographics, and the aims of corporations. True, the game action is boring, but I imagine lots of kids would still be psyched to play Admongo on the classroom computer—assuming the alternative is a chalkboard-based social-studies lesson.

The whole project seems relatively harmless. (Some adults might even benefit from a little “ad-ucation,” as the FTC terms it.) Yet Admongo has its detractors. Two primary complaints: 1) The game is insufficiently critical of the broad, pernicious influence of marketing on modern American culture. 2) This reluctance to speak hard truths stems from the fact that the FTC partnered with PR behemoth Fleishman-Hillard and educational mega-corporation Scholastic to develop and distribute Admongo materials.

The first is a fair point—in fact, one section of Admongo’s attached curriculum for teachers has kids crafting their own targeted ad campaigns, like tiny Don Drapers. But while I’m always a fan of righteous anti-advertising paranoia, that simply isn’t the FTC’s mandate. The agency is tasked with regulating marketing and commerce, not vilifying them. As for Point 2: The FTC needed to outsource parts of the project because of its limited in-house resources, but people at the agency assured me the intellectual content in Admongo comes entirely from the government.

Still, I wanted a more rounded assessment. I called up Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, because I knew I could count on her to offer a militant but well-reasoned take on any new development in the world of child-targeted marketing. (When last we spoke, Linn was jovially informing me that my brain is a heap of festering mush as a result of my exposure to TV ads at a tender age.)

Linn has some concerns about Admongo’s upbeat take on the role of advertising in children’s lives. But mainly her beef is that this is a poor use of the FTC’s scarce funds. She’d prefer the FTC spent its time cracking down on advertisers who take advantage of kids’ vulnerabilities. Instead, Admongo arms the kids with some basic concepts and then lets the poor tykes fend for themselves.

“There are already media literacy curricula out there for teachers to use,” Linn points out. “And, anyway, there’s no evidence I know of showing that media literacy has an impact on consumer behavior. Ads target emotions, not logic. You can know you’re being manipulated but still be manipulated. People talk about how media-savvy kids are these days, but that just means they recognize a lot of brands.”

Linn also notes that Admongo ignores kids younger than 8. The FTC says it couldn’t design the content for younger kids because at that age the little moppets aren’t yet capable of understanding persuasive intent—or even the difference between advertising and editorial content. But doesn’t that suggest those younger kids are even more in need of the FTC’s protection?

Linn’s solution is to outlaw all marketing aimed at children 12 and under. (Places like Sweden and Norway have already banned TV ads directed at kids under 12.) Advertising is too powerful and too harmful, in her view—forging insecurities, fostering acquisitiveness—to be allowed anywhere near the developing frontal cortex of a child. I’m not sure I’m completely onboard with her policy prescriptions, nor do I think they would be easy to enforce given the current American media landscape. But I certainly understand where Linn is coming from and sympathize with her broader goals. It is tempting to envision the possibility of a commercial-free childhood.

To me, though, the most interesting thing about Admongo is its emphasis on the ubiquity of ads. A previous FTC-designed game, called You Are Here, also urged kids to consider where ads come from and to examine the truth of marketing claims. But in Admongo, a major part of playing the game is understanding that ads can be anywhere and can take many different forms. The player encounters text-message ads, ads inside videogames, cross-promotions, and product placements.

This element of Admongo is testament to the explosion of new advertising platforms and the fierce intensity of modern marketing. According to Linn, in 2008 American Idol—consistently a top-rated show for 2-11 year-olds—featured 4,151 product placements in its first 38 episodes, averaging 14 minutes of product placement on each show. Kids are now constantly in front of screens of all kinds, and those screens are brimming with ads that pretend they aren’t ads. These days, just being able to recognize when you’re being marketed to is a useful skill.

For instance, check out the Admongo poster, which the FTC includes with the package of curriculum materials it makes available to teachers. The poster is meant to be hung up in classrooms. It’s an illustration that helps kids spot all the different places ads can appear, from cereal boxes to magazines to blimps in the sky. Ironically, in the poster’s lower right corner is the logo for Scholastic—which worked with the FTC on the Admongo project, and which sells books and other products through its catalogs to a captive school-kid audience.

“The Scholastic name helps in terms of getting our curriculum into classrooms,” said one FTC representative I spoke to. “With Scholastic, you’re talking about a known commodity for teachers, while they might not be that familiar with the FTC.”

Behold the power of branding, kids. And consider this a learning opportunity.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.