Does Anti-Buzz Bill Go Too Far?

A bill introduced in the Massachusetts House of Representatives aims to protect teens from online buzz marketers, but it could be interpreted to apply to a number of widely used interactive marketing practices.

“In an era when an unprecedented number of children are being recruited by marketers to participate in online advertising campaigns, we need to protect our youth from unwanted solicitations and ensure that marketing messages are age-appropriate,” said state Rep. Michael Festa, who sponsored the bill. “Doing so should require parental approval of all marketing practices and materials whenever children are taken advantage of by marketers.”

The legislation is designed to ensure that youth under the age of 16 who are recruited to participate in marketing campaigns, such as word-of-mouth promotions, can do so only with parental consent. Festa introduced the legislation late last month and it has yet to be assigned to a committee.

“We totally agree with these important issues. We’re the first and only group to do anything about it, and we’re glad to see other people getting involved,” said Andy Sernovitz, CEO of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA).

In February, WOMMA issued a set of ethical guidelines in which it opposes involving children under the age of 13 in word-of-mouth efforts and urges marketers to abide by all legal restrictions on marketing to minors.

The proposed bill reads: Section 61A. No person shall, without obtaining prior parental consent, employ a child under 16 years of age in connection with a sales force network that distributes, on the Internet or through an online service, marketing communications designed to encourage the purchase, sale, or use of a commercial product or service.

The restrictions of this section shall not be deemed to prohibit a child under sixteen from forwarding or otherwise sending marketing communications to another individual on his or her own behalf.

Sernovitz expressed concern that the bill might be too broad if it passes as it’s currently worded. The text could be read to regulate whether teens could use branded IM clients, for example, or use free email services that routinely include advertising messages in sent mail. Incentivized “send to a friend” functionality could potentially also be covered.

“All marketers should be concerned when there’s legislation deciding who can participate in an online campaign. This is hardly a word of mouth marketing issue,” Sernovitz said. “Marketers should not sit on the sidelines — issues like this will continue to arise. Marketers should partner with legislators to come up with the best possible policies.”

The Viral + Buzz Marketing Association (VBMA) this week issued a statement praising the proposed Massachusetts legislation, and issued a call to end the use of children under 16 to disseminate marketing messages.

“The Massachusetts legislation is addressing the very concerns that the VBMA’s been raising for months,” said Brian Clark, VBMA president. “Our standard goes even further than the proposed legislation because, as marketers, we recognize the inherent difficulties in verifying ‘parental consent’ for children online. Simply put, it’s safer for kids — and more honorable for marketers — to quit using kids in marketing efforts, period.”

In October, the VBMA set forth its own ethical guidelines, which did not directly address the issue of involving minors in a campaign.

Festa said he was drawn to the issue after reading news accounts, including a December 5 New York Times Magazine article (PDF) that described the ways in which some buzz marketing companies run campaigns. One of the subjects of the Times story was Boston-based BzzAgent, a founding member of WOMMA.

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