Global platform Roblox recently made headlines when young people in Malaysia took to the platform for a virtual protest in support of Palestine. Many users notably carried the Malaysian and Palestinian flag virtually in solidarity and videos of the protest were circulating on social media. Attendees could reportedly choose between raising a Malaysian or Palestinian flag or none at all.
The virtual protest was reportedly visited over 275,000 times globally, according to CNBC, though Roblox noted that the count could include multiple visits by the same person. True enough, Roblox has become more than just a place to play games and stay entertained over the last few years.
The Roblox platform is currently known as one of the top online gaming and entertainment platforms for audiences under the age of 18. In fact, according to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of BBB National Programmes, a US advertising watchdog, the largest demographic on the platform consists of users aged between nine and 12 years old.
This is likely why brands such as H&M, Gucci and Hyundai Motor have found a home on the platform. This year alone, Barbie and Forever 21 tied up for the launch of its "Forever Barbie" virtual collection featuring a selection of 76 accessories, clothing and bags and Hasbro's children's show My Little Pony creating a new metaverse game on the site, Visit Maritime Bay to mark its new episode releases of My Little Pony: Make Your Mark on Netflix.
However, in tandem with its rising popularity, Roblox has also been in the hot seat for violating advertising guidelines to children under 13. Roblox came to CARU’s attention through its routine monitoring of child-directed content. CARU determined that Roblox had not adequately disclosed to children whether advertising present within “experiences" on Roblox and content integrated into a video was advertising. Right now, Roblox has established new advertising standards for its platform, which will no longer allow advertising to children under 13.
According to industry experts that MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to, brands need to approach advertising on this platform with an attitude of care and collaboration to comply with best practice and regulation, rather than a blanket ban or boycott, according to Werner Iucksch, SVP of Social, APAC Media.Monks.
"Brands and agencies need to be responsible. The existence of risks should not be a deterrent in this case, because Roblox is certainly interested in ensuring brand and audience safety," he said, referencing Roblox's new advertising rules regarding minors. He added that it is really not a mystery as to how brands can advertise on platforms such as Roblox ethically.
"Communication plans and creative approaches are developed and run by adults who must be responsible and knowledgeable about what they are doing - there is no substitute for taking responsibility," he said, adding:
Any marketing partner worth their salt will also keep an eye on what’s going on and will implement a crisis protocol with clear escalation plans, so the brand is protected, much like any social media account.
Companies that take responsibility will work together with the platform, and other experienced partners, when running communications in an environment that contains an under-aged audience, he explained. There are also abundant regulations about this type of advertising that exists not to curb creativity or business, but to guide companies on how to do this right.
Saying that, there are still many grey lines that brands like to play with. Ranganathan Somanathan, co-founder and curator of RSquared Global Ventures, pointed out that while there are clear guidelines on what can or cannot be said in advertisements targeted at children, there are no regulations that prevent brands from connecting with the younger demographic.
Many global brands proactively self-regulate in markets where the guidelines are vague and aim to operate with more stringent norms.
He added that as long as the ads are not promoting harmful content or products, or that does not create unrealistic experiences, instigate their pester power, and broadly exploit their vulnerability, it is actually okay for them to advertise to kids. This is something that brands tend to continue on exploit.
How brands can then advertise ethically
Despite these grey areas, there are many opportunities for brands to take advantage of the power of Roblox while remaining ethical about it. After all, according to McKinsey, the virtual-goods economy accounts for more than 40% of global gaming revenues generated by the world’s billion gamers. It also said that direct-to-avatar sales of virtual goods are already a US$54 billion market.
Thong Kai Xuan, COO at GosuGamers, said that ads can be educational, informative, meaningful and entertaining, which can have a positive impact on a child's development. "To do so, it is imperative that brands advertising on platforms such as Roblox uphold social responsibility and truthfulness in their promotions," she said.
Instead of over-sensationalising or overselling to engage these young audiences, brands should opt for creative, interactive, and family-friendly approaches, since parents are usually still the key decision-makers.
She added that children are constantly surrounded by advertising in our digital era and so it's inevitable for them to come across negative advertising from time to time.
"It's a shared responsibility among advertisers, media space owners, authorities, as well as parents to shield children from undesirable advertising," she said, adding that it is only through regulations, transparency and accessible feedback systems that we can effectively manage advertising to the younger generation.
Being aware of varying regional regulations
In addition to avoiding over-sensationalising and overselling, marketers need in-depth, localised knowledge on advertising guidelines to children. These guidelines can often vary from region to region. In fact, brands should draw up their own set of guidelines in order to remain true to their brand values and to stay ethical, suggested Robert Gaxiola, head of creative, Southeast Asia and India, Ampverse.
“Just pick an evil: sugar, saturated fats, meat, caffeinated soft drinks. What may be appropriate in one market is a cultural disaster in another,” Gaxiola said. “In the end, the market has the final say, so it is best to first get a local perspective or conduct some proper research beforehand.”
Adding to his point, Edwin Yeo, general manager at Strategic Public Relations Group pointed out that there are a variety of different rules in place and that marketers need to educate themselves on them.
The Federal Trade Commission, for example, focuses on deceptive and unfair practices, while the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS) has a children's code for food advertising that basically says advertisers need to align with the government's food and nutrition policies, he said.
"You could make the case as to whether such regulations are sufficient, but they do exist and at the bare minimum, advertising platforms should adhere to them," he added.
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