Today, the Institute for Public Representation made two filings at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on behalf of its clients the Center for Digital Democracy and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. One asks the FTC to investigate over a dozen major food and beverage companies that allow their unhealthy products to be advertised on YouTube Kids app contrary to their self-regulatory pledges. The other supplements a Request for Investigation filed on behalf of the same groups in April 2015 seeking investigation of Google’s deceptive and unfair practices in its YouTube Kids app. IPR students Samantha Rosa and Nick Garcia worked on these filings.
The Request to Investigate Members of the CFBAI
Eighteen of the largest food and beverage companies (such as Burger King, Coca-Cola, Mars, and Nestle) are members of the self-regulatory Consumer Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). These companies have pledged not to advertise products to children under age 12 unless they meet certain nutritional standards. The YouTube Kids app is intended for children age 5 and under. Nonetheless, we found hundreds of videos marketing products on the YouTube Kids app that did not meet these standards. In addition to television commercials, we found longer videos endorsing the products and entire channels devoted to brands of cookies or other snacks. The following screenshots are examples of the types of ads we found on YouTube Kids.
Example of a Brand Channel on YouTube Kids (Hershey’s)
Example of a product endorsement on YouTube Kids (Nutella, Oreo, Reese’s)
Our clients sent letters to the companies urging they work with Google to remove the ads for their junk food from YouTube Kids.
Supplement to April 2015 Request to Investigate Google
We originally filed a Request for Investigation of YouTube Kids in April 2015 alleging that YouTube Kids mixed commercial and other content in ways that were deceptive and unfair to children. We also argued the app was deceptively marketed to parents in that much of YouTube Kids’ content violated its strict ad policies. Since our Request, Google has updated several aspects of its app, including the app store description, the ad policies, and it has added a Parental Guide.
The supplement argues that Google’s changes do not address our concerns. Google continues to allow extensive advertising, including of food and beverage products, on YouTube Kids (see examples above). These ads can be deceptive to children primarily because it has long been known that children have great difficulty distinguishing between content and advertisements on television and do not understand the purpose of commercials is to promote the sale of a product. These advertisements are likely making their way to YouTube Kids, in part, because of the growing presence of multichannel networks, digital “influencers,” product placement companies, and major advertising and “unboxing” video companies on YouTube and YouTube Kids. Thus, we argue the FTC should expand its investigation of Google to include its relationships with those companies, which have likely contributed to the expansion of commercial offerings on YouTube Kids.
Google’s changes to its ad policy and the addition of its Parental Guide similarly do not address our concerns. Google’s ad policy, which disallows advertisements of food and beverage products on YouTube Kids, now applies only to the 15- and 30-second “pre-roll” ads that run before a video, and not to videos uploaded by users, which themselves can be ads (as shown above). This change fails to take into account the more common form of advertising taking place on YouTube Kids via long-form commercials, product placements, and endorsements, which remain largely deceptive to children.
Further, Google continues to deceive parents into thinking it is a safe environment for their kids. YouTube Kids’ description in the app store claims that it is designed for curious little minds to discover and learn and that its policies are family-friendly. Google also claims that it disallows food and beverage advertisements and that it has a mechanism to remove from YouTube Kids videos containing product placements, which Google itself appears to deem inappropriate for children. However, as the supplement showed, children can readily access an endless number of advertisements. Google’s claims to the contrary thereby deceive parents into thinking this app is safe for children.
Press coverage of the complaints: