The new world of what they call "immersive marketing" is featured in Wired [The Neopets Addiction]. The article describes the Neopets virtual world that has 25 million members who average over 6 hours a month on the site (reputedly the second stickiest site on the web!).
Buddy is a winged, wide-eyed baby dragon that lives in the online land of Neopia. Tyler "adopted" Buddy five months ago and personalized his color (green) and gender (male). Now he spends two hours a day at Neopets.com, shopping for Vonroo toys and Cornupepper soup to keep Buddy happy and healthy. With frequent exercise, he has pumped Buddy's strength from "average" to "above average."
For Viacom, the main draw is the site's advertising model. In a world of TiVo, pop-up blockers, and satellite radio, where it keeps getting harder to reach people with ads, Neopets collapses the boundaries between content and commercials. Many zones in the vast make-believe world, like the Firefly Mobile Phone Zone, are sponsored by companies, and there are branded games like Nestlé Ice Cream Frozen Flights and Pepperidge Farms Goldfish Sandwich Snackers. Tyler likes to play McDonald's: Meal Hunt, in which he searches for lost McNuggets. Jana Gagen, his mom, says they've been taking more trips to the real-world McDonald's ever since Tyler started racking up NeoPoints in the restaurant's online game. "We go to get the Neopets toys," she says. The tie-in merchandise comes with Happy Meals.
This seamless interweaving of marketing and entertainment is an advertiser's dream come true. "There's nothing on the Net delivering an experience like Neopets," says David Card, a senior analyst for Jupiter Research. "Kids aren't being harangued, and parents think it's safe."...Of course, what attracted Viacom to Neopets is exactly what makes children's advocates and media critics bristle. "It's clearly an effort to plant brand names in the minds of children," says James McNeal, professor emeritus of marketing at Texas A&M University and author of The Kids Market: Myths and Realities. "It is not until around 8 years old that they can mentally defend against a persuasive sales message if they wish to." Neopets reports that half a million of its users are under age 8.
In Huntsville, Alabama, 4-year-old Megan Fanning and her 54-year-old grandmother, Susan Wilson, are tending to their Neopets. Wilson, recently disabled by osteoarthritis, spends hours a day volunteering with DL's Adoption Agency, a Web site that takes in abandoned Neopets and places them with new owners. "The only thing we require is a good application so we know they're going to a good home," says Wilson. "Even though these are just pixels, some of us get a little nutty about the pets."
You read that first paragraph and think "What a great way to deliver nutrition and physical activity messages and promote behavior change (by earning NeoPoints)," and then you get to the next part... Well, a perfect example of the IOM report's subtitle - Threat or Opportunity. The question now becomes how to incorporate Neopets into more of the pro-social and pro-health causes it is clearly uniquely positioned to deliver on.