The recently-launched YouTube Kids app (available for free on iTunes and Google Play) aims at taking YouTube’s vast library of videos and presenting them in a kid-friendly format, with only age-appropriate content on offer. Though the app, designed for ages 5 and under, does a good job of filtering relevant content for younger users — in part by leaning on partners like DreamWorksTV, Jim Henson TV, and Mother Goose Club — it has come under fire from parents and consumer groups because of advertising.
Like YouTube itself, YouTube Kids is packed with advertising content, including sponsored reviews, advertisements styled like news reports, and videos that may be sponsored by a company without clear disclosure. These ads are mixed in with videos and it’s not always clear whether you’re watching a video or an advertisement — or whether a video seemingly produced by an independent content maker is actually part of a sponsorship or endorsement deal. This is the sort of thing that wouldn’t fly on broadcast or cable television, where the FCC has had strong restrictions regulating advertising to children since the 1970s, when studies showed young children haven’t developed the cognitive skills to resist advertising.
Though the Internet is more of a regulatory gray area, a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission today by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation argues that the ads violate FTC regulations preventing unfair and deceptive marketing — and urges the FTC to investigate. The complaint has an impressive list of backers, too, with signatures from Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
The service’s questionable advertising content includes:
- Unboxing videos, which are in essence lengthy advertisements and may be created or sponsored by companies even though they appear to be from independent content creators. According to the complaint, “Disney-owned Maker Studios has agreements with five popular YouTube channels — DisneyCarToys, HobbyKidsTV, TheEngineeringFamily, ToysReviewToys, and AllToyCollector... All five YouTube channels affiliated with Disney’s Maker Studios are also available on YouTube Kids."
- Programming and advertising content that are mixed together, with advertising content that isn’t necessarily labeled as advertising. According to the complaint, “Selecting My Little Pony brings up four options. Two of the four options are labeled 'TV Commercial.' The other two are identified as 'TV Clip' but are actually promotions for the My Little Pony program."
- Sponsored channels, which look like original content but are actually advertising — even though these channels include a small notice that they’re advertising, the complaint alleges these are deceptive.
Google has its own restrictions for advertising on YouTube Kids — preventing a variety of child-inappropriate content from being displayed — but they don’t go as far as television advertising restrictions. The company has issued a statement in response to the complaint, suggesting they created the app with good intentions: “When developing YouTube Kids we consulted with numerous partners and child advocacy and privacy groups. We are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app.”
As to what comes of this controversy, we’ll have to see what the FTC does in response.
[Image via YouTube]