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How to target children with hidden ads on social media

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Ever accidentally clicked an ad while scrolling social media because you didn’t know it was an ad? This is what advertisers call “content marketing”.

With funny memes, inside stories or inspirational content, this type of advertising disguises its commercial character. In particular, there is no call-to-action, no “buy this, it’s great!” There isn’t even an obvious connection with the advertised product or service. Everything works as long as it arouses positive emotions in the consumer.

Of course, stealth advertising is nothing new. Product placement has been around since the mid-1890s – it’s as old as the moving image itself.

But the combination of content marketing and social media creates something much more powerful. And if the product being sold is addictive or potentially dangerous, the impact on the most vulnerable audiences is alarming.

Minimal commitment

If you, as a brand, manage to build positive emotional associations in the minds of your consumers, you don’t have to be hard selling your product. In fact, hard sales and direct calls to action do the opposite. Research has shown how they cause consumers to strengthen their mental defenses when they realize they are being sold to them.

To avoid this, content marketing ads are designed to generate as little cognitive engagement as possible. Instead, they are meant to create a warm, fuzzy feeling or make their audience giggle.

This is how a brand goes from being a barker to being a friendly buddy. What is a dude who wins followers in the age of social media. As these followers like, comment, and share each ad, it gains momentum – the holy grail for marketers is to watch it go viral.

Want to share or share a supermarket ad that says “Chicken Fillet Only $ 2.99 This Week”? Probably not. But imagine watching a funny post like the one shown below from Aldi, which references the Netflix series Squid Game.

Once you’ve seen the show you’ll understand the inside joke and feel like part of the scene. So you share and show others that you understand. You don’t care that the post is from Aldi – maybe you didn’t even notice. But somewhere in your brain (and in the brains of your network and your network) a synapse ignites, a new connection has been established: Aldi is one of the cool kids.

Mental defense

So far so harmless? Not quite. Not all brands have the same incentives. While some brands sell chicken, others sell addicting, potentially dangerous products – from alcohol to gambling – and to them content marketing is as appealing as sheep’s clothing to a wolf.

Take gambling tokens. In a recent study, we analyzed more than 888,000 Twitter gambling ads. We found that 40% was content marketing. Let’s get back to these natural mental defenses that we immediately and automatically build up when we spot an ad – if the ad prompts us to gamble, the defenses will be even higher. So content marketing is more insidiously more effective.

But there is a target audience for whom the effects can be catastrophic. Under 25s – including children under the legal gambling age – are not very good at mentally defending themselves. And this is the group that, according to our research, is most concerned with gambling content marketing on Twitter – Likes, Shares, Follows.

Children are less able to recognize advertisements than adults – they simply lack the experience. And 17-24 year olds are more likely to process advertising affectively because, as neuroscientific research confirms, their brain structure is changing dramatically and the neocortex (where rational decisions are made) is in transition.

With content marketing, it is almost impossible for children to immediately recognize the persuasiveness of the posts. And while young adults may be able to tell that the posts are advertisements, they have a much harder time being persuaded than older people. So it is likely that no group will come up with the mental counter-arguments necessary to refuse content marketing.

For our new study, we worked with 650 participants and compared the reactions of 11 to 16 year olds, 17 to 24 year olds and over 25 year olds to gambling content marketing on Twitter. We measured whether their reactions were positive or negative, as well as the intensity of the emotion.

Unsurprisingly, gambling content marketing was far more appealing to all three groups than ads with a clear call to action. But the attractiveness of content marketing for kids and teens just skyrocketed – they found content marketing posts almost four times more attractive for gambling than those over 25.

This effect was even stronger in eSports betting – which children, adolescents and young adults almost appeal to, because children and adolescents love games. This is alarming when you consider that two-thirds of all UK-based Twitter followers on gambling accounts are under the age of 25. They may come for the banter, but because they are young and their brains make them impulsive, they may well stay because of the gambling addiction.

What makes this even more serious is that the Advertising Standards Authority doesn’t regulate content marketing – it only regulates where the product or service is mentioned, and that’s exactly what scares consumers off.

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