When Google launched its YouTube Kids App earlier this year, the company described it as “the first Google product built from the ground up with little ones in mind.” But Google also seemed to have advertisers in mind as it designed the new app, according to a complaint we – along with a coalition of prominent children’s and consumer advocacy groups – filed recently with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charging the company with unfair and deceptive practices and calling for an investigation in to the app.
The free app, available through the iTunes App and Google Play stores, purportedly offers popular children’s programming, plus kid-friendly content from filmmakers, teachers, and creators from around the world. It also, however, features excessive advertising that we think goes too far, violating long-standing media standards for children’s programming designed to protect them from unfair and deceptive advertising.
Children are uniquely susceptible to advertising. The safeguards for children’s television programming were created because young children cannot tell the difference between commercials and programming and inherently trust the characters that appear on their favorite shows and in commercials. Federal safeguards designed to protect children have been in place for decades for both broadcast and cable channels. The standards for children’s programming include a prohibition against the host of a children’s program from delivering commercial messages, strict time limits on the amount of advertising any children’s program can include, a ban on program-length commercials and no “product placements” or “embedded advertisements.” The overarching goal of the safeguards is to provide clear separation between advertising and children’s programming.
Our FTC complaint outlines several specific practices we found in the programming on YouTube Kids that are unfair and deceptive to children because they provide absolutely no separation between advertising and programming. Examples of these unfair and deceptive practices include intermixing programming and advertising, numerous “branded channels” for corporations like McDonald’s, Barbie, Fisher-Price that essentially serve as program length commercials, and so-called “user-generated” segments that feature toys, candy, and other products without disclosing the business relationships that many of the producers of these videos have with the manufacturers of the products.
The Complaint also shows that YouTube Kids is deceiving parents because much of the content on the app appears to violate Google’s own advertising policies. For example, while the company promises that food and beverage ads will not appear on the app, advertising and promotions for junk food are prominently featured throughout.
Online and streaming video may be the future for television content, but we don’t think that means leaving behind child protections that have become the norm. No matter what screen kids are watching, parents should have the confidence that marketers aren’t targeting their kids with unfair and deceptive ads.