A sweepstakes conducted by a magazine for tween girls raised concerns under the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, the Children's Advertising Review Unit determined.

Discovery Girls magazine, which offers "advice, fashion and other fun stuff" for children aged 8 and up, ran a sweepstakes for a free iPod. Advertisements in the magazine and on the company's Web site made statements like "Tell Us About You! Go to DiscoveryGirls.com/survey" and "Answer all the questions to be automatically entered for a chance to win an iPod."

The first question stated, "Please enter your name, state, country and e-mail address so you can be entered for a chance to win an iPod Nano (you may skip this question if you do not want to be entered)." Of the more than 50 questions in the survey, many were personal in nature and some allowed users to type in their own response.

None of the ads included a disclosure with the odds of winning the iPod.

CARU expressed three concerns about Discovery's sweepstakes. First, the survey collected personally identifiable information (PII) from children under the age of 13 without obtaining prior, verifiable parental consent. In addition, the self-regulatory body questioned whether children would believe they needed to answer all 50 questions in order to be entered in the sweepstakes and, also noted that the odds of winning were not disclosed.

In its defense, Discovery explained it believed the collection of children's e-mail addresses for the sole purpose of contacting the winner's parents was permissible under COPPA. The advertiser also said it simply wanted to encourage girls to answer all the survey questions, which was not required for entry. And the official sweepstakes rules included a statement about the chances of winning, which Discovery thought was sufficient.

But Discovery's sweepstakes failed to comply with both CARU's Self-Regulatory Program Guidelines as well as the requirements of COPPA, the decision found. Both the Guidelines and COPPA require that if a Web site operator desires to collect PII from children under the age of 13, a parent must first be notified and consent must be obtained.

COPPA contains an exception to prior parental consent, where an operator collects the online contact information from a child for the sole purpose of responding directly on a one-time basis to a specific request from the child, the information is not used to recontact the child, and it is deleted by the operator from its records.

But that one-time exception was not available to Discovery because it applies only to the collection of a child's online contact information, CARU said. In contrast, Discovery also collected the child's name, state, and country, while other survey questions allowed for open-ended answers, where a child could provide even more personal information.

CARU also determined that one reasonable takeaway from the advertising was that children had to answer all of the questions before being entered in the giveaway. "The advertisement's use and emphasis on the word 'all' in combination with the phrase 'Take our survey and fill out all the answers! Then get a chance to win a brand new iPod!' could be misinterpreted by a reasonable child to mean that you must complete the survey in order to be eligible to win the iPod, when in fact all you needed to do was to answer the first question."

Finally, CARU's Guidelines recommend that advertising for sweepstakes directed to children include the likelihood of winning. The statement in Discovery's official rules was insufficient, the self-regulatory body found, as no disclosures were made on the print or online advertisements.

"CARU has consistently held that material disclosures in print and online advertising should be approximately equal in size and tone to those statements creating an interest in the sweepstakes and not buried in official rules or in fine print at the bottom of the page," according to the decision.

In its advertiser's statement, Discovery said it would modify advertising and sweepstakes procedures accordingly to comply with COPPA and CARU's recommendations.

To read CARU's press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: CARU's decision provides a valuable refresher course for advertisers considering a child-directed sweepstakes, with the reminder that advertisers must comply with both the self-regulatory guidelines and COPPA. Advertisers should clearly disclose the likelihood of winning in language that is readily understandable to the child audience and take a close read of the advertisement as a whole to evaluate all reasonable interpretations of the claims – not just the message intended to be conveyed, like encouraging entrants to answer all the questions. Most importantly, remember that verifiable parental consent is required before any collection, use, and/or disclosure of personal information from children.