Webkinz? Barbie Girls? Be-Bratz? Club Penguin? Never heard of these? Your 6-yearold has. At a time when advertising and marketing to children is in the cross-hairs of regulatory agencies, virtual worlds are discovering that imagination can run wild in an environment where children—some as young as 5 or 6 years old—can shop, adopt pets, and play dress-up.
Remember virtual pets? You could purchase a small, self-contained computer (of course it wasn’t marketed as a computer, but as a digital companion) with names like Tamagotchi or Giga Pets—often with a tiny display that had the “pet’s” image.
Small buttons on the outside of the casing allowed you to feed your pet or wash it, and there were even pets that could interact with other pets (e.g., Digimon). If you didn’t treat your pet right it might even die!
Now toys purchased at retail stores— toys for young children—are showing up with flash drives which, when plugged into a computer USB port, unlock features and hold the keys to virtual worlds where children can play—in dollhouses, shopping malls, with pets and characters. Building brand awareness is critical for marketing-driven companies, and building brand awareness in young children who may carry the imprints into their teenage and adult lives…well, you know…. Next up, potty-training your virtual baby. Stay tuned.