Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Social Media at the U.S. Mint

The U.S. Mint is a revenue-generating agency that has a profit making relationship with its numismatist public. The U.S. Mint for Kids site (Link to Mint for Kids) is good case study for analyzing how the ethics of marketing to children would apply in the new media.

A Detailed Site Description
The U.S. Mint handily describes the site as a “fun, educational tool to generate interest in coins the U.S. Mint and U.S. History.” The site displays animated cartoons appropriate for children. It also has coloring pages related to the topic of the U.S. Mint and coins. For older students, there is an on-line library, and downloadable articles on topics related to coins.

It also has 21 games ranging in difficulty from simple to complex. All of the games involve a trivial pursuit theme, naturally related to coins. All in all, this site has comprehensive information about the products it sells in an age appropriate, attention getting format.

Does the Site Work in Promoting Coins?
According to Director Michelle Bartrum, (See Wiley) the Mint’s revenue generating activities were ideal for the Web. After her introduction of Web marketing, sales at the Mint jumped from $2000 per week to $1.4M per week. She also introduced a series of communities of interest accessible from their Web Site.

David Scott’s ground-breaking book The New Rules of Marketing and PR could have used Bartrum’s strategy with kids as a case study to reinforce his points about “thoughtful and informative” content driving marketing (p 31). David continues to emphacize content on his blog, see Optimizing a Site.

Bartrum’s stated purpose in creating communities of interest was “to develop an ‘online community’ of coin enthusiasts that return to the site over and over.” This not only included kids but a special effort was made to reach out to kids.

Is it Ethical?
In his book, Business Ethics, DeGeorge (2005, pp 343-344) discusses the morality of marketing to children. Marketing intended to be manipulative is generally held to be unethical. Because of their unique vulnerabilities, children are more easily manipulated and so precautions are necessary.

Young children are very impressionable and believe most of what they hear and are unable to clearly separate truth from fantasy. Adolescent children can critically attack fantasies but are still vulnerable because of their social insecurity. The morality test is "does the marketing coerce or manipulate?"

According to this standard, the U.S. Mint for Kids site is right on the line. It is reaching to an interested segment of young children, with a potentially high frequency. It is driving home the allure of coins. It has effectively increased sales. In reviewing the site, though, the intent seems to be information rather than manipulation.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, WOMMA prohibits marketing to children under the age of 13 as unethical (See Media Post or WOMMA). According to this standard, the U.S. Mint is unethical since it has clearly defined marketing goals and tactics it is employing to reach pre-teens. I do not consider the U.S. Mint Kids site to be unethical. Integrated Marketing Communication per se is not unethical and the U.S. Mint Kids site does not attempt to exploit the mentioned vulnerabilities of young children or adolescents. The WOMMA Code does not seem realistic in this regard.

The law pertaining to child web marketing is the The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) (see EPIC) and it prescribes limits to the “collection of personal information when a child participates in online games and contests.” Naturally, the U.S. Mint did not violate the statutory restrictions.

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