Stealth advertising—marketing that is indistinguishable from other content—is a growing problem for children and teens, and one that’s drawing the attention of federal regulators.
That is a big reason why schools should also pay more attention to the problem. They should highlight it in their efforts to teach students media literacy, according to Girard Kelly, director of Common Sense Media’s integrity program.
Kelly, an expert on emerging technologies, recently spoke with Education Week about stealth advertising and why it’s an issue educators should pay more attention to.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
What are some examples of stealth advertising?
These are the influencer sponsored messages. These can be videos or tweets or posts on other social networks talking about a product they like or use.
Another is virtual product placement. People might think of a Coke can in a TV show or a movie, but it’s a lot more sophisticated now, where in post-production they can change the signs, they can change different ways that a product is shown in a movie, a game, or a show , based on the viewer’s interest or preferences, these products can change dynamically.
There are other ways that people interact with stealth advertising but they are not aware of it. Funny memes, where you see a brand or product trying to raise positive awareness for that brand, and kids and teens who feel like they’re in on the joke.
Virtual reality is this whole new intersectionality with games and kids and teenagers and advertising because there are avatars and non-player characters that can talk to you and interact with you and nudge you to buy new in-game weapons, or clothes, or other in-apps . buy. The conversations, text exchanges may be uniquely different for each player based on their preferences collected on other websites and services. In a way, many people do not even realize that they are being persuaded.
What are the dangers for children and teenagers?
A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of this blurry advertising is trying to increase engagement, increase that on screen, right? And so it’s about encouraging kids and teenagers and students to come back to the app, come back to the content. I think this is the most obvious harm, or impact to children and teenagers, because they don’t have the cognitive ability to really look skeptically at these messages and realize that they are being persuaded or exploited. And to be honest, adults normally can’t look at these different types of blurry ads and understand that they are trying to persuade them.
What do educators need to know about stealth advertising?
It’s not necessarily what educators traditionally think of, like a banner ad or something flashing, right next to a news article that they can ignore. This type of advertising cannot be separated from the content. So for educators I think just to be aware of themselves and [help] students to be more skeptical.
And, of course, the whole, really trying to go out and find quality resources, quality technology, quality products [for schools]. I always remind educators that they’re in a really unique, powerful position when it comes to talking to tech companies because as parents we can’t call WhatsApp and say, “hey WhatsApp: I want you to give me another version of WhatsApp [that’s] better for privacy.” But schools or districts have that purchasing power. They can talk to the provider and put additional privacy duty agreements in place for students.
Should students be taught about stealth advertising as part of media literacy instruction?
Yes, there should be some. Because we want students to be critical of the content they look at on the web. And now advertising is moving from other traditional methods, like a video ad reel maybe on YouTube or an ad on the side of the content page, and now being embedded into content in a game or an app. I believe that as technology evolves around advertising, I believe that our digital literacy education must evolve with it.