In two new complaints filed with the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) requested that the agency pursue an investigation into junk food ads on child-directed video sites like YouTube Kids (YTK) and the sites' relationships with food, beverage, and toy companies and its "unboxing" video partners.
The complaints follow an earlier missive from the groups to the agency about potential deceptive and unfair advertising practices on the video site. Despite that April complaint, "Young children watching YTK are still being exposed to a large amount of deceptive and unfair commercial matter," the CDD and CCFC told the agency. "It is essential that the FTC complete its investigation and use its enforcement power to stop these deceptive and unfair practices on YTK."
In the new complaint, the groups argued that members of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) deceptively claim that they comply with their pledge not to advertise to children under the age of 12 even though its members produce hundreds of commercials and videos promoting food and beverage products from CFBAI members.
The CFBAI pledge applies to advertising, including ads on the Internet, product placements, and ads directed to children under age 12 on cellphones, smartphones, and other digital devices. Despite the promise not to market to this audience, the groups said they found products from 16 of 18 CFBAI members during a search process between May and June 2015.
A total of roughly 600 videos were found on the YouTube Kids channel consisting of commercials that previously aired on television, promotional videos that were created by the companies for their brands and products, and product placements and endorsements that they included.
The groups also expressed concern about videos that appear to have been made and uploaded by third parties that discuss a specific branded product. "While we lack the ability to determine for certain that the product placements and endorsements were paid for or actively sought out by the CFBAI members, the high production values and the large number of such videos featuring the same hosts, suggest that they were not the result of individuals acting on their own without any incentives from the brands," according to the complaint.
Citing a YouTube channel featuring a child television actress with videos of her reviewing various products, the groups told the FTC that "[i]t is highly unlikely that this well-known actress would be reviewing food products on her own accord," and her endorsements suggest that she has undisclosed contracts for endorsements with CFBAI members or their advertising agencies. "The use of a popular child actress to endorse a product is no different than host-selling on child-directed television programming, which is not allowed because it is deceptive and unfair to children," the groups wrote.
If the FTC finds that CFBAI members have been complicit in getting their promotional content on YouTube Kids, the CDD and CCFC argued that the companies should face an enforcement action for engaging in deceptive marketing practices by misrepresenting their compliance with self-regulatory principles in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.
The second complaint follows up on the April complaint and contains additional information about the relationships between YouTube and paid advertisers and their various intermediaries, including agencies that specialize in "influencer" marketing. "Because these relationships are not disclosed on YouTube Kids as required by the FTC's Endorsement Guide, CCFC and CDD call on the FTC to investigate the contractual and other business connections between Google and its YouTube commercial partners and affiliates," the groups wrote.
To read the complaint and request for investigation with regard to CFBAI members, click here.
To read the follow-up complaint, click here.
Why it matters: With the new complaints, the groups continue to focus attention on the issue of child-directed advertising on video sites and increase the pressure on the FTC to look into the issue. Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, would not confirm that the agency was investigating the earlier complaint and what—if anything—it would do about the new complaint. "We welcome and we review carefully all such complaints submitted to us," she told The New York Times.