Why Media Literacy Programs Need to Emphasize “Stealth Advertising”


Stealth advertising – marketing that is indistinguishable from other content – is a growing problem for children and teens that is attracting the attention of federal regulators.

This is a big reason why schools should also pay more attention to the problem. According to Girard Kelly, director of Common Sense Media’s privacy program, they should highlight this in their efforts to teach media literacy skills to students.

Kelly, an emerging technology expert, recently spoke with Education Week about stealth advertising and why it’s an issue that educators should be paying more attention to.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some examples of stealth advertising?

These are the posts sponsored by influencers. It could be videos, 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 can of Coke in a TV show or a movie, but it’s much more sophisticated now, where in post-production they can change billboards, they can change different ways a product appears in a movie, game or show, depending on the viewer’s interest or preferences, these products may change dynamically.

People interact with stealth advertising in other ways, but they are not aware of it. Funny memes, where you’ll see a brand or product trying to positively raise awareness of that brand, and kids and teens feel like they’re in on the joke.

Virtual reality is this whole new intersectionality with games, kids and teens, and advertising, because there are avatars and non-player characters that can talk to you and interact with you and trick you into buying new weapons, clothes or other in-app purchases. Conversations, text exchanges can only be different for each player according to their preferences collected on other sites and services. Somehow, many people don’t even realize they are persuaded.

What are the dangers for children and adolescents?

A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of that blurry advertising is trying to increase engagement, to increase it on screen, right? And that comes down to getting kids, teens, and students to come back to the app, back to the content. I think this is the most obvious harm or impact for children and adolescents, as they lack the cognitive ability to look at these messages with skepticism and realize that they are being persuaded or taken advantage of. And to be frank, adults can’t normally look at these different types of blurry ads and realize that they’re trying to persuade them.

What should educators 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 they can ignore. This type of advertising is indistinguishable from content. So for educators, I think just being self-aware and [help] students to be more skeptical.

And, of course, the bigger picture, trying to really get out there and find quality resources, quality technology, quality products [for schools]. I always remind educators that they’re in a really unique and strong position when it comes to talking to tech companies because as parents, we can’t call up WhatsApp and say, “Hey WhatsApp: I want you to give me a different version of Whatsapp [that’s] better for privacy. But schools or districts have that buying power. They can talk to the provider and put in place additional student data privacy agreements.

School district leaders need to know, “hey, before we use these resources, let’s talk to this company and find out what their practices are.” [There might be] a new type of advertising technology that may not be described in a company’s privacy policy. I think I’m having these conversations with companies, looking for companies promising that they don’t use student data for advertising.

Should students be taught stealth advertising as part of media literacy education?

Yes, that should be part of it. Because we want students to critique the content they view on the web. And now advertising is moving away from other traditional methods, like a video ad maybe on YouTube or an ad on the side of the content page, and is now being integrated into game or app content. I think as technology evolves around advertising, I think our digital literacy education needs to evolve with it.

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