Complaint Filed Against Unfair and Deceptive Practices Used by Google, Disney’s Maker Studios, DreamWorks-Owned AwesomenessTV, and Other Companies, by Leading Advocacy Groups
The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Public Citizen filed a complaint at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today asking for an investigation and enforcement action against Google (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc.), Disney’s Maker Studios, DreamWorks-owned AwesomenessTV, and two other companies for the unfair and deceptive practice of targeting “influencer” marketing toward children. The complaint documents how several marketing companies—Collab Creators, Wild Brain, Maker Studios, and AwesomenessTV—produce and distribute ads and other commercial material targeting children that masquerade as content. It also details how Google encourages and benefits from the production of child-directed influencer videos and distributes these ads to children on its YouTube and YouTube Kids platforms. These “influencer” ads take unfair advantage of kids, who do not have the ability to recognize that companies use social media and YouTube celebrities to pitch toys, junk food, and other products.
The groups also called on the FTC to release policy guidance that makes clear that using influencers to persuade children to buy a product or urge their parents to buy a product is unfair and deceptive. “Child-directed influencer marketing is misleading to children because their developing brains do not process or understand advertisements the way adults do—especially advertisements disguised as content,” said Laura Moy, Director at the Institute for Public Representation (IPR) at Georgetown University Law Center, which represents the groups. Existing FTC regulations require that advertisements be disclosed as such—which many influencer ads fail to do—but the complaint also makes clear that better disclosure alone is not a sufficient remedy because it “would not negate the inherent deceptiveness of child-directed influencer marketing.”
As a result of the FTC’s inaction, marketing companies—backed by Google and others—are increasing investments in their influencer marketing practices with harmful results. “In many cases these advertisements cause children to want unhealthy and costly products,” Moy pointed out. “As this marketing practice expands even while evidence mounts that it is harmful to children, it becomes increasingly urgent for the FTC to make clear that the practice is unfair and deceptive under the law.” According to the complaint, the FTC can reverse the trend of harmful influencer marketing directed toward children by issuing policy guidance that makes clear that existing laws serve as a safeguard to protect children from these advertisements.
The complaint analyzes the influencer marketing apparatus, and the role that Google and so-called Multi-Channel Networks (MCNs) such as Disney’s Maker Studios play in orchestrating the growing use of this tactic. It highlights how these companies use “influencers” who are young or popular with kids to sell junk food, toys, and more. The complaint identifies highly-popular YouTube channels like EvanTubeHD, Baby Ariel, Meghan McCarthy, the Eh Bee Family, and Bratayley, each with millions of subscribers, and how they present videos of child stars unboxing toys, playing games, and enthusiastically sampling junk food. The complaint provides several examples of such videos, including one where Baby Ariel and her family sample Jelly Belly brand jelly beans as part of a game called “BeanBoozled.” In another video, on EvanTubeHD, the child influencer is seen unboxing a Lego Police Patrol Boat. Neither video indicates that it is an advertisement, and both videos can be found intermingled with non-sponsored content on YouTube Kids. Google facilitates, promotes, and solicits these videos because they are popular with children, which increases the company’s ad revenues.
“It’s time for the FTC put a stop to child-directed influencer marketing,” explained CDD’s Executive Director Jeff Chester. “Companies like Google are knowingly taking advantage of children and their parents by unleashing a torrent of stealth digital ads disguised as programming supposedly suitable for kids. As the country’s leading consumer protection agency, the FTC has a mandate to protect the public—including our children—from practices we know are both unfair and deceptive.”
“Parents have no idea that the adorable ‘friends’ their children like to watch unbox toys are really stealth marketers,” said CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin. “It’s time for the FTC to take swift and decisive action and protect children from a practice that has long been prohibited on children’s television.”
“Corporate predators are using young Internet influencers, admired by kids, to hawk their wares to children, even to young children,” explained President of Public Citizen, Rob Weissman. “The marketers and the advertising platforms enabling and promoting this activity should be ashamed. But since they’re not, we need the FTC to act to end their outrageous practice.”
CCFC and CDD have also previously filed complaints with the FTC concerning child-directed marketing practices on YouTube Kids and YouTube. Today’s complaint can be found here.