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PSSST! COME INTO MY WEB...

With its unique ability to talk to computer-savvy kids one by one, the Internet should be a powerful marketing tool for anyone trying to reach the young and the hip. Instead, it has become the focus of critics who charge online kid marketers with abusive practices. Those issues were taken up in recent Federal Trade Commission hearings, but many marketers have already started overhauling their sites--in effect, undermining the one-to-one intimacy that makes the Net so compelling.

With some 4 million kids under age 17 going online last year alone, it's not surprising advertisers were right there with them. But exploiting the Web's interactivity without exploiting the immaturity of children has proven tough. Marketers have been slammed for offering freebies to kids in exchange for personal information without a parent's consent, and for not clearly differentiating ads from games or other entertainment.

One of the oldest kids' sites, from Web site developer Kidscom Co. in Milwaukee, asked registrants for personal information about themselves and their families from which it culled statistics for advertisers. Grey Advertising Inc. set up a kids' site purely for market research, soliciting info from children about their sneakers, cool words, and favorite music.

But in the wake of a scathing report last year by the Center for Media Education (CME), a Washington watchdog group, many mainstream marketers had to rethink how they interact with kids. Kidscom still asks questions, but before children can post messages or get free merchandise, they have to register--and Kidscom lets parents know by E-mail. Every time an ad appears, it's accompanied by a special character, the ''ad bug.'' To search for pen pals, kids have to get their parents to send in a consent form. Grey, meanwhile, simply shut down its Web site.

A Presidential task force is expected to recommend guidelines for sites aimed at children next month, and the FTC is weighing rules for sites that market to children 11 and under. Earlier this month, CME and the Consumer Federation of America called for guidelines that would prohibit sending unsolicited commercial E-mail and offering free merchandise in exchange for personal information. In addition, the watchdog groups want marketers to obtain parental consent in writing or by E-mail before kids get access to sites where personal information is collected.

That may seem low-tech, but until the Web can overcome the perception that it's unsafe for kids, it's going to be unsafe for advertisers as well.

By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles


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Updated June 23, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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