Through an online ad campaign and pressreleases, The National Institute on Media and the Family (NIMF) have called on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) to revise its Word of Mouth Marketing Code of Ethics to prohibit the exploitation of minors in word of mouth campaigns.
"The National Institute on Media and the Family knows the meaning of 'buzzploitation' -- Internet marketers whispering into children's ears without their parent's permission," said Dr. David Walsh, the Institute's president and founder. "Through our ongoing investigation, we also know children engaged in some word of mouth campaigns are being exposed to inappropriate language and images and may be sharing their personal information with strangers."
For children's safety, Dr. Walsh suggested WOMMA add parental notification/consent to its Word of Mouth Marketing Code of Ethics. "WOMMA is leaving parents in the dark," said Dr. Walsh. "Parents need to know what their children are seeing and doing online. One way to make sure children notify their parents of their involvement in online promotions is to require parental consent. Otherwise, WOMMA provides a 'safe harbor' for marketers who seek to exploit children by allowing their members to hide behind incomplete and imperfect ethical standards."
The Institute also expressed concerns that WOMMA's Word of Mouth 101 - An Introduction to Word of Mouth Marketing, which includes a section on Unethical Word of Mouth Marketing Strategies, does not mention the use of minors in word of mouth campaigns.
"No one would deny that putting children at risk is an unethical business practice and should be identified as such by the word of mouth marketing industry," said Dr. Walsh. "WOMMA needs to make clear to its members that exploitation of children is an unethical business practice and will not be tolerated."
Last fall, the Institute asked one of the founding companies of WOMMA, BzzAgent, to address its policy of suggesting to their "agents" that they be "discreet" in telling friends and family members what they are doing as an "agent" for the marketer. After assurances from BzzAgent that their policy would change, the Institute has found that the company continues to mail welcoming packages to new "agents" with the exact same suggestions on using discretion when it comes to telling others about their relationship to the marketer.
"It is shameful WOMMA seeks to market itself in its Word of Mouth 101 with self-aggrandizing statements akin to 'we're the good guys committed to protecting consumers with strong ethical guidelines' when, in practice, it turns a blind eye to the unethical practices of its own members," added Steve Collins, President and CEO of Martin|Williams, a Minneapolis-based advertising firm. "Turning that blind eye is not only beyond cynical; it poses a real threat to both parents and minors."