It's an alarming statistic: One in five children has been sexually solicited online.
That stat is turning up on billboards and television commercials around the country, driven by an aggressive push from child-protection advocates. In the TV version, eerie music plays as a camera pans over a school playground and then shows a park. A female narrator intones: "To the list of places you might find sexual predators, add this one" -- as the image changes to a girl using a computer in her bedroom. The spot ends with the one-in-five stat. It's all part of an ad blitz that has gotten millions of dollars of free media time since its launch last year and is set to continue through 2007.
But while the motivation behind the campaign appears to be sound, the crucial statistic is misleading and could scare parents into thinking the danger is greater than it really is. . . .
The upshot of all of this is a dated stat -- five years is an eon in Internet time -- that makes once-valid research seem scarier than it is.
It is no great surprise that advertising can present statistics in misleading or slanted ways. But when this happens in commercial ads, competitors can fire back. For noncontroversial issue advertising, no one has great motivation to challenge advocates' claims -- who would argue that parents don't need to be vigilant about their children's online activities?
I think that nonprofits and advocacy groups should be held to the same standard as businesses on this sort of thing -- especially since it's often part of a pitch to raise money. And, as I've written before (here,here,here,here, and here, among other places), nonprofits need to be getting the kind of financial-accounting scrutiny that businesses get, too.