April 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

FTC Complaint Takes Aim at YouTube

SLJ composite/Thinkstock

SLJ composite/Thinkstock

YouTube can be a wonderland of videos, with content that is created by and aimed directly at younger viewers. But a new complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) takes aim at YouTube and the way that some channels are feeding advertising to its youngest viewers.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), and Public Citizen want more oversight in the way messages are delivered to children ages 12 and younger. Specifically, they want “child-directed influencer marketing” investigated. Their concern? That children may not realize that when a favorite YouTube star is eating a snack, it may well be because he or she has been paid by that brand to munch on its chips.

“Kids don’t understand that this is an advertisement,” says Josh Golin, CCFC’s executive director, based in Boston. “It’s fundamentally unfair to advertise to someone who doesn’t understand that they’re being advertised to.”

There are advertising standards, laid down by the FTC, about commercial messages aimed at kids, as “children may be deceived by an image or a message that likely would not deceive an adult,” writes the commission on its website.

But the CCFC and others believe these standards are not being followed online, at least not strictly, such as disclosing if a star is wearing a pricey brand of basketball shoes because he was paid to do so and/or because he got them for free. Even when disclosures appear, they’re often small and usually not in the video itself.

“For children, disclosures don’t work,” says Golin. “Children are not developmentally ready to understand what a disclosure means.”

Dozens of YouTube channels are marketed directly at younger viewers, from Bratayley and its 3.5 million subscribers to Baby Ariel and its 1.8 million followers. Both are cited and named in the FTC complaint.

The groups are specifically asking the FTC to look at social media because they understand this is where ad dollars are going. As channels like YouTube and sites like Instagram and Snapchat continue to capture younger viewers, brands want to make sure they’re in front of this next generation of buyers.

“Children are learning how to react to messages they see, and that’s why advertisers want to reach them so young,” says Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert Program in Washington, DC. “So they grow into loyal consumers.”

While both Golin and Strader want the FTC to take some action, they also say parents and educators can walk young people through simple media literacy steps so they better understand what they’re seeing.

Golin notes that while younger kids aren’t ready for a complete media literacy lesson, they can be taught to question what they’re seeing. For children under the age of eight, their parents should actually monitor what they’re viewing, and if they see product placement on a YouTube channel, just close it out.

Strader adds that teachers can also talk to young people about advertising and how companies are driven by profits, which is why they want people to see their brands and buy them.

Finally, Golin suggests parents start a conversation with their children and ask if they know why their favorite YouTube star is excited about a toy or keeps mentioning how much he or she loves a specific brand of donuts.

The FTC has not responded to the complaint yet, says Strader. But that could take a couple of months, adds Golin. And even if it does start to investigate, the FTC may just work behind the scenes without ever issuing a formal resolution.

In the meantime, Strader says, adults shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming children wouldn’t grasp these concepts anyway and so not bring up these conversations. That’s not true.

“Children are constantly learning and adapting, and you can explain to them what’s going on,” she says. “I think it’s extremely important to help them understand what they’re looking at.”


RELATED: Five Questions for Kids’ Media Literacy Expert Frank W. Baker

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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.