A popular YouTube channel for kids is the subject of a new complaint filed by Truth in Advertising (TINA) with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

TINA accused Ryan ToysReview, starring 7-year-old Ryan Kaji, of engaging in deceptive practices by targeting preschool children with sponsored video content “that misleadingly blurs the distinction between advertising and organic content.”

The channel—which has more than 20 million subscribers and received north of 30 billion views since 2015—was cautioned by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) in 2017, when the self-regulatory body called for an audio disclosure at the beginning of each sponsored video.

TINA maintained that Ryan ToysReview failed to consistently comply with CARU’s recommendation, and also argued that CARU’s recommendation itself was “flawed because it was not based on data regarding the channel’s target audience’s age or consumer perception.” According to TINA, if CARU had obtained data on the specific age of the channel’s target audience and the consumer perception of such age group, “it would undoubtedly have concluded that even an audible disclosure … does not clarify the content for its target audience or eradicate the deception present in such videos.”

After reviewing 211 videos aired on Ryan ToysReview between January 1 and July 31, 2019, TINA found that 92% (195 videos) promote at least one product or a TV/YouTube program that is targeted at kids under the age of five. Some of these videos include material connection disclosures, and some do not.

For example, a June 2019 video titled “Ryan Pretend Play Pizza Delivery Cooking Playhouse!!!” shows Ryan pretending to cook and serve toy pizza. But nine days later, in a “strikingly similar” video, Ryan again prepares and serves food—this time with toys from Hardee’s new Star Pals meals. However, no disclosure appears in the second video, TINA said.

Even when the videos include disclosures, they are inadequate, the complaint alleged. In one video, a woman’s voice quickly states, “This is an ad for Nickelodeon,” at the beginning of a lengthy video, immediately after a preroll advertisement, “making it highly unlikely that Ryan’s preschool fans will notice the audible disclosure.” 

TINA claimed that when videos directed to kids under five include advertising with program content, “the preschool audience is unable to understand or even identify the difference between marketing material and organic content, even when there is a verbal indicator that attempts to identify the marketing content.”

Citing the FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, TINA reasoned that when such a blending of content occurs, the FTC requires any material connection between an endorser (e.g., Ryan ToysReview) and the seller of the products to be “clearly and conspicuously disclosed [by the advertiser] in a manner that will be easily understood by the intended audience. In this case, the audience is unable to understand what advertising is and cannot even identify obvious commercials. As such, Ryan ToysReview’s ads and sponsored content violate FTC law.”

To read TINA’s complaint, click here.

Why it matters: TINA may have timed the filing of its complaint perfectly, coming on the heels of the FTC and the New York attorney general’s $170 million settlement with YouTube and their focus on child-directed content. TINA is asking the FTC to take a close look at how disclosures are made in content targeted to preschoolers, including audio disclosures, even if the disclosures comply with CARU’s recommendation.