PepsiCo has long been my poster child for food corporations whose actions speak louder than words when to comes to responsible marketing. CEO Indra Nooyi loves to tout the company’s “Performance with Purpose” and show off the company’s “good-for-you” foods that it gets to define. Most don’t realize that PepsiCo is the nation’s largest food company, with five divisions spanning from soda to salty snacks to breakfast cereals. With annual revenues of $60 billion and 285,000 employees, PepsiCo is an multinational corporate behemoth.
Now the company’s true colors are revealed in all their twisted marketing glory. A legal complaint filed today with the Federal Trade Commission by the Center for Digital Democracy and several other groups called upon the agency to investigate PepsiCo and its subsidiary Frito-Lay for “engaging in deceptive and unfair digital marketing practices” in violation of federal law.Even if you thought you already knew that teenagers were being targeted online by junk food brands, I can guarantee that the marketing strategies revealed in this complaint and accompanying report will freak you out, either as a parent or just a human being.
Among the clever techniques PepsiCo has deployed are horror video games called Hotel 626 and its even scarier successor, Asylum 626, which, the company’s ad agency (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners) explained, were designed to “scare the crap out of teenagers,” in the hopes of selling more Doritos.
The websites for these games were only available from 6pm to 6am (626 – get it?) because the agency explains: “We wanted people to visit the site at night, after hours, when guards are down and they are the most immersed in what could happen.”
The purpose, according to the complaint, is to engage youth in a multi-dimensional, interactive environment, using a variety of under-the-radar techniques, each with increasing levels of creepiness. Teens registering on the site are asked to provide name, email, and date of birth, and to enable their webcam and microphone.
Then the game encourages teens to post and share photos of themselves as they participate; prompts them to “send a scare” to friends in their social networks and even required them to use their webcams, microphones, and mobile phones to “escape” the nightmarish experience.
These techniques are not just gross, they also happen to violate the law. As the press release explains, by “disguising its marketing efforts as entertaining video games,” it’s more difficult for teens to recognize such content as advertising (which of course is the whole idea). Also, PepsiCo claims “to protect teen privacy while collecting a wide range of personal information, without meaningful notice and consent.”
As I was writing this (at 11pm) I decided to visit Asylum 626 myself. The music is the sound of a heartbeat, which I have to admit is already scary. The first screen warns the site is for “mature audiences only” and those “under age 18 must not view without an adult guardian” — what a great marketing device for teens. The next screen helpfully explains that the experience is best viewed with my lights out and headphones on. Then, after showing off the brand with, “Doritos Presents,” the site suggests that I log into Facebook or Twitter for the “full treatment experience.” OK, now my heart is pounding along with the music and all I want to do is close the page. I can’t even enter the damn thing I am so scared.
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