Taking a stand on social media influencers and the “unboxing” video trend, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) recommended that popular YouTube channels starring a ten-year-old and his family add a prominent audio disclosure before each new sponsored video.

Evan and his family members (including younger sister Jillian and occasionally his parents) star in videos on three YouTube channels: EvanTubeHD, EvanTubeRAW, and EvanTubeGaming. The videos feature the family doing various activities of interest to children such as playing video games, performing science experiments, and unboxing toys. Evan’s channels have millions of subscribers.

CARU expressed concern about these new media platforms, which “have heightened the possibility for confusion between advertising and editorial content, especially when it is viewed by children.” Particularly problematic are “ostensibly user-generated online videos, which contain undisclosed or inadequately disclosed advertising or endorsements in the content of the videos themselves.”

Roughly 85 percent of the videos posted on the Evan channels are made without any consideration from the manufacturers, the family told the self-regulatory body, and about 85 percent of the total revenue generated by the channels comes from pre-roll advertising. When Evan does make a video featuring a free product or payment, he will sometimes make statements such as “When we came home from school we found a surprise from [Company],” or state that the video was “brought to you by [brand],” or use a text disclosure, e.g., “sponsored by [Company]” below the video.

CARU, however, determined that the sponsored videos amount not only to paid commercial advertising whose purpose is to induce the sale of a product and/or persuade the audience of the value of a product or brand, they are a form of native advertising.

But were those facts clear to the children watching the videos?

Not necessarily, CARU said, as “children would reasonably assume that all Channel posts, including sponsored ones, were independent unless there was a clear disclosure indicating otherwise” and the existing attempts at disclosure were insufficient.

Evan’s use of a text disclosure was not helpful for young children who do not know how to read, his comments in sponsored videos did not make clear that the products had been paid for, and the pre-roll ads at the beginning of the videos added to the confusion. “Because children may easily recognize these commercials as ads they may be even less likely to suspect that further advertisements are contained within the videos,” the self-regulatory body wrote.

CARU was also not persuaded that the use of phrases such as “brought to you by [brand]” or “sponsored by [brand]” were sufficient to put children on notice that they were viewing an ad.

“EvanTube should modify and standardize the way it provides disclosures,” CARU recommended. Disclosures on the channels should be enhanced in accordance with Federal Trade Commission guidance and CARU’s own guidelines in order to adequately inform children that the sponsored videos are advertisements.

“An effective disclosure informing consumers of the sponsored video’s commercial nature at the start is necessary to prevent consumer deception,” CARU said, adding that the channels should “place a clear and prominent audio disclosure stating that the videos are advertisements at the outset of the video before any such sponsored video begins.”

EvanTube agreed that, going forward, newly created sponsored videos will include an oral disclosure that the video is an “ad” or “advertising.”

To read CARU’s press release, click here.

Why it matters: CARU noted that as the legal landscape continues to evolve and develop, the case presents novel and important issues for online advertisers and content creators that double as social media influencers. “The question of how to inform consumers that native ads are advertising, and not content, is a complex one, even for adults,” the self-regulatory body wrote. CARU emphasized that, since the FTC has made it clear that ads must be clearly disclosed and that the impact of the ad’s format on consumers will be considered, “it is imperative to adequately disclose the presence of advertising to children who are less sophisticated than adults.”