Photo Source: Max Pixel
Between the internet, television, and simply walking on the street, we are constantly being advertised to. Plenty of normal content even has sponsored content baked into it, such as sponsorships or product placements in movies. According to Red Crow Marketing, the average consumer sees between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements per day. As adults, we can better understand how to filter advertisements and process them, but younger kids do not have the same kinds of tools to be able to do the same thing. Recently, YouTube and one of its users have come under fire for how it has been handling advertising to children.
In the United States, there are a couple ways the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) tries to safeguard against unfairly manipulative advertising, including towards young children. This comes from the fact that younger children, especially preschoolers, have a harder time differentiating between sponsored content and the sincere part of the entertainment. If kids are being advertised to without them being able to make proper decisions, the advertising comes off as deceptive.
While lawmakers and other groups are currently trying to update the laws regarding children’s advertising in this new internet landscape, the FTC does have COPPA, or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. The law prohibits a site from knowingly collecting information on kids under 13 or incentivizing kids to give up more information than necessary for a given activity (such as having a kid put in a parent’s phone number just to play a game online). Sites also have to disclose all the information that they will be collecting from kids and how they will be using it.
Youtube has been under fire for not adhering to the FTC’s regulations. This past year, Youtube was fined a record-breaking $170 million dollars for violating COPPA (The Verge). This was because kids would often receive advertisements catered to them before videos, implying that Youtube was unlawfully collecting information on them. While Youtube claims in its terms of service that the site is not intended for service for kids under 13, plenty of the largest channels on the site are toy unboxing videos and nursery rhymes which are definitely geared towards kids. In response, Youtube has barred directed advertising for any channels that cater specifically to kids, which will cut ad revenues for kid channels and incentivize them towards getting more sponsorships.
This past week, popular kid-geared YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview was reported to the FTC for the channel’s use of sponsorships. Even though the sponsorships were properly identified, according to the watchdog group Truth in Advertising, a preschooler would not have been able to differentiate the paid sponsorship from the actual content (The Verge). The watchdog group claims that the channel profits off of “deceptive native advertising” by taking advantage of its audience’s lack of discernment between advertisement and entertainment and including paid sponsorships in their videos. According to the watchdog group, some of the sponsorships are not properly identified, and those sponsorships that are properly identified through a small voice-over or text on the screen are not sufficient for young children (an adult would properly understand, but would a young kid?).
This newest complaint to the FTC is a signal of the growing discomfort with paid sponsorships being baked into content that is being marketed towards young children. To be clear, these advocacy groups are not trying to keep every content creator from using their platform to promote their products or services. The current issue that the FTC and other advocacy groups are trying to tackle is how to deal with sponsorships directed at young children, since they have a harder time differentiating between advertisements and normal content, creating a potential moral grey area. It does stand to question, however, what advertising can be truly ideal for small children, especially if they can't differentiate ads at all. As we explore the growing pull of kid-geared YouTube channel, we will may see a lot of changes on both the Youtube platform and from a law perspective with the FTC. We’re already seeing YouTube make changes after being fined by the FTC, but it still remains to be seen how the FTC and Youtube resolve this current issue. Hopefully, both sides will be able to come to a conclusion that is fair to content creators but protects young children from being taken advantage of by advertising they can’t spot.