Online, marketing solutions that fetch high traffic include parroting viral topics. For marketers, the backlash on the cheese challenge—with people like Chrissy Teigen expressing their distaste in the prank—raises an important question in digital marketing: if throwing a slice of cheese on a baby’s face is not acceptable content, then what is? Amid the viral “cheese challenge”, it’s time to review the ethics of involving kids in content creation.
Never mind that social media sites require users to be 13 years old and above. In this digital age, children—including babies—are both the subject and the target of content.
And I’m not just talking about catchy tunes about infant sharks, or videos of toddlers running in soft morning light. The latest one to spread like wildfire across social media, sparking thousands upon thousands of imitations worldwide, does not call to mind halcyon summers of childhood but involves the intersection of infants and dairy. Not milk, but cheese. Cheese that is hurled onto a baby’s face.
Over the same weekend, the New York Times ran a story entitled “Online and making thousands at age 4: Meet the Kidfluencers.” A shorthand for “kid” and “influencer”, “Kidfluencer” is a buzzword that describes a person belonging to the youngest segment of social media personalities paid for using or endorsing a product on their respective channels. Under their parents’ watch, children headline content about toy reviews, games, fashion, mischief, and family-friend content in general.
There’s a common thread between the baby-cheese meme and the Times story: they involve children and content.
For marketers, the backlash on the cheese challenge—with people like Chrissy Teigen expressing their distaste in the prank—raises an important question in content creation: if throwing a slice of cheese on a baby’s face is not acceptable content, then what is?
To add to that, the Times raised the following questions in its kidfluencers article: “Should advertisers and brands be able to use young people as influencers on social media? Should companies like Instagram and YouTube revise their policies on advertising and children? Should there be more regulations for the internet and social media to protect children?”
Unlike television, which has rules in place for programmes, actors and actresses, and advertisements, nobody oversees the content that gets published on the internet. Thus, a brand must be responsible enough to police its own content, and make sure that they remain ethical, in order to make the most of their strategy.
YouTube does not allow users under 13 years old to own an account. The same goes for Instagram, but the parents or guardians can get around this by disclosing clearly in the bio that the account is run by them.
Already, brands are paying big money for product placements. Those who target children know that they are putting their advertising money to good use. In a 2017 study, PwC foresaw that the kids’ digital advertising industry will be worth US$1.2 billion this year. Kids are an important market that holds a large influence on parents’ buying decisions, and are future adult consumers as well.
According to the article, an Instagram post could cost between US$10,000 to $15,000, while a YouTube post could ring in US$45,000. The most famous kidfluencer, Ryan ToysReview, who has over 18 million YouTube subscribers as of writing, has made $22 million largely from advertisements, according to Forbes. Thus with big money being poured in this nascent industry, a good first step is seeing to it that the subjects of the content, and the verified profiles where the posts will come out, follow the rules.
The Times also found several paid advertorial videos promoting Mattel, Walmart, Staples, DreamWorks and Claire’s in kidfluencers’ accounts. However, Mattel, the famous makers of Barbie, declined for comment when asked for an interview.
For what goes in the post, it is crucial that the content looks and feels natural.
The subject of the lead and the main photograph of the Times article is Samia Ali, the four-year-old YouTube star with 203,000 subscribers and paid deals with Crayola and HomeStyle Harvest chicken nuggets.
From her, we take away an important lesson in content creation with children: it must seem natural. In the article, Samia’s parents remarked that the there are cases where brands seek to relay messages that are not “kid talk.”
This is also applicable to the cheese challenge. While the meme does not necessarily depict violence or nudity, and one cannot merely report it as offensive, it is unnatural and quite rude. And while it may be humorous to some, it can make other people uncomfortable. This could be a marker that this kind of content may not work, as it might attach negative vibes to the brand.
Meanwhile in an article entitled “How Parents of Child Influencers Package Their Kids’ Lives for Instagram”, The Atlantic emphasised how the youngest influencers in fact owe their fame to “their parents’ intense work behind the scenes”.
The parents behind the account @ministylehacker, for example, boast of sponsorship by retailers like Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company and eBay, but they clarified that they select only companies that accurately represent the family’s values. They shy away from products that might embarrass their kids when they grow up.
Brands, thus, must make sure that they align their values to their targeted kidfluencers, or make sure to exhibit those values in their own content involving kids.
In the case of the cheese challenge, it seems like a cheese brand has stepped up to settle the issue once and for all. After tweeting a video featuring the original cheese baby wearing a branded shirt, Kraft had this to say:
The cheese challenge could stand as a metaphor for serving up content. At the end of the day, brands throw their content into the abyss that is social media, not knowing how the consumer will react. But if content is cheese, then brands must choose their cheese well. Or, better yet, brands must not throw the cheese and instead, handle and serve it well, reflecting the way both food and babies should be treated: with respect.