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Wal-Mart, the largest US toy retailer, is facing a campaign from child protection advocates against a new web-based marketing drive that it has launched in the run-up to the holidays.

Walmart.com’s new “Toyland” microsite features two animated “renegade elves” called Wally and Marty who encourage children to help them review a parade of toys. Chosen toys are then boxed up and added to a wish list that can then be e-mailed to adults.

As child-users move toys such as a new $20 Bratz doll and a $250 ride-able toy Ford Mustang into an animated rocket the elves announce that “choosing the toys is only the beginning. You also have to tell someone.“

“If you show us what you want on your wish list, we’ll blast it off to your parents,” the elves declare. “We’ll plead your case.”

On Thursday, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched an online petition calling on Wal-Mart to close the site down, encouraging its members to send emails to Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chief executive and Carter Cast, head of Walmart.com, over the issue.

Susan Linn, co-founder of the group, said the site “takes marketing to children to a new level”.

“This is a store interposing itself between parents and children, and actively encouraging kids to nag for their products,” she said.

Wal-Mart joins a growing number of marketers using online viral marketing techniques to target children. The Kaiser Family Foundation said in August that almost two-thirds of youth-targeted food companies were encouraging children to send e-mails to their friends inviting them to check out that site or to tell them about a product.

Wal-Mart’s elves site, which will be featured in television and print advertising, goes beyond moves by its online rivals, Target, Amazon and Toys R Us, who have largely focused direct online toy sale efforts at adults.

While Toys R Us’s online Geoffrey’s Birthday Club is aimed at children aged 2-10, registration requires parental consent, in line with the requirements of the Children’s Onine Privacy Protection Act of 1998.

The act prevents retailers from collecting or retaining information on children without parental consent. However, it includes a number of exceptions, including allowing a retailer to collect a parent’s e-mail from a child in order to seek consent and other purposes.

Wal-Mart says it is not retaining e-mail addresses submitted by children and will not use them for future promotions.

The new microsite is part of an ongoing effort by the retailer’s new marketing team to focus on specific customer segments - which included an effort this summer to support back-to-school sales with a website targeting teenagers.

J David Neal, Wal-Mart’s marketing manager for toys, said that the new site reflected the retailer’s belief that “the dynamic of children and toys is changing. They have their own resources and money, are hyper-aware of trends and are an integral part of the shopping experience.”

“We are very keenly aware there are certain boundaries we don’t cross. The site is very kid-friendly, without being pushy.”

Ms Linn said Wal-Mart was “parading these toys surrounded by sparkling stars...there’s no sense of what the parent can afford, or the parents’ own values”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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