The metaverse is being hailed as the next big technological revolution, with countless brandsexploring the incredible potential to engage with existing and new customers in immersive virtual worlds. The rules of the road for the metaverse are beginning to be written, with businesses and nonprofit organizations watching closely for signs on how the metaverse itself will evolve.
According to Deloitte, over the next few years, the evolution of the metaverse will take on one of three likely scenarios: “low orbit: the metaverse excels at certain things but never becomes a general-purpose platform;” “double star: there is not a single metaverse, but a handful of major players vying for a share of a dynamic marketplace;” or “big bang: an open, interoperable metaverse becomes the dominant interface through which we conduct most of our daily activities.”
Regardless of how the metaverse evolves, there are already a variety of innovative ways for brands to engage, with spending on metaverse advertising on track to total between $144 billion and $206 billion by 2030, according to a new report from McKinsey. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg recently stated on CNBC that he envisions a billion people in the metaverse spending hundreds of dollars each on digital goods to express themselves or decorate their virtual homes or conference rooms in the second half of the decade.
As businesses explore how to participate in the metaverse, they also should consider challenges that the metaverse can present, such as creating safe spaces for children and teens, consumer data privacy, false or misleading advertising, financial transaction security, brand safety, consumer trust and safety, global considerations, evolving legal standards and more.
In this article, I am going to discuss some of these metaverse concerns through the lens of advertising and privacy, and the intersection of these with children’s well-being.
Advertising And Privacy In The Metaverse
A shift to an immersive world with virtual reality (VR) headsets means businesses can collect even more intimate details about consumers than they can via traditional screens. The technology has evolved such that tracking facial expressions, vocal inflections and vital signs are possible. This data is susceptible to use for highly targeted advertising.
As Jon Callas and Kavya Pearlman explained to the Washington Post (paywall), “VR headsets could provide a frightening pathway to biometric information previously inaccessible to companies, employers, law enforcement and the government… And that includes any inferences drawn from that information… VR companies and their advertising partners could use the way we move our eyes, heads and arms to infer things about our personalities, health and habits, and use that information to market to us.”
More data also means more potential for deceptive advertising. Louis Rosenberg, CEO of Unanimous AI, warned, “In the metaverse, we won’t be hit with overt pop-up ads or promo videos, but simulated people, products and activities that seem just as real as everything else around us.” There will be computer-generated personas “programmed to engage you in conversation, reading your facial expressions and vocal inflections so they can pitch you more skillfully than any used-car salesman. And they’ll be crafty, armed with a database of your interests and inclinations, plus a history of your previous interactions with similar ads.”
Children’s Advertising And Privacy In The Metaverse
The stakes described above are amplified for children because they are a uniquely vulnerable population. As Senator Ed Markey and U.S. Representatives Kathy Castor and Lori Trahan put it in a recent letter to the Federal Trade Commission, “Research indicates that children struggle to identify embedded advertising in video content. This raises concerns that they may experience similar difficulties identifying marketing in VR.” They argue that this could lead to marketing practices that are “inherently manipulative of children.”
Relatedly, several VR offerings are not positioned as products meant for children but are nevertheless used by the under-13 audience. Companies should consider implementing strong guardrails to keep children out of adult-only environments. And for environments that are meant for children, businesses should be following the protections and safeguards laid out for children in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In addition to privacy protections and appropriate advertising limitations, these considerations include preventing harms such as bullying, harassment, predation, violence or exposure to adult activities.
What This Means For Businesses
While this new technology is in an evolving growth mode, I suggest that businesses and nonprofits apply the same advertising and privacy practices as they do in the typical online world.
Make sure your advertising is truthful, non-deceptive and clearly identifiable as advertising. This means that proper, easily viewable disclosures are important, not only in ads, endorsements and brand-building events, but also in influencer content. As a reminder, influencers cannot be misleading in their promotion of the product or service. And ask influencers to clearly disclose their relationship to the sponsor. These disclosures must be hard for consumers to miss.
For privacy, this means following the web of relevant state and federal laws and disclosing the data you are tracking, collecting or sharing. Consumers are already seeing this to an extent with targeted advertising, but because the metaverse introduces so many more ways to track and evaluate consumers, there is greater potential for businesses to personalize a user’s virtual environment, making these disclosures more important. Businesses should also be sure to adhere to relevant biometric privacy laws and have a compliance strategy to implement consumer data rights.
Regulating the metaverse will require active involvement and coordination among business leaders, policymakers and consumers, necessitating a new paradigm of cooperation and accountability. This all begins with the companies themselves. I encourage businesses to come together to identify problem areas and develop self-regulatory systems and safeguards to both protect consumers and encourage continued innovation in this evolving space. As the metaverse itself continues to evolve, so too must the rules of the road.