When Google's YouTube Kids app was released a few weeks ago, I had high hopes that it would provide a great way for parents to stream their kids' favorite videos without worrying about other programming or ads that might pop up. But it turns out, the app itself is heavy on ads, and critics are crying foul about the level of deceptive advertising being served up to unsuspecting kids.
A number of consumer groups — including the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, the Consumer Federation of America, the Consumer Watchdog and Public Citizen — have filed objections with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing Google of breaking the television marketing rules for advertising to children.
For example, app users can stream a seven-minute video from McDonald's explaining how some of its signature products such as Chicken McNuggets and burgers are made. Although the clips are marked with a small notice declaring that they are "promotional consideration provided by McDonald's," the complaint alleges that the videos use deceptive marketing tactics. As any parent knows, most young kids can't tell the difference between a "promotional" video and one that isn't an ad.
Another video on the American Greetings' Strawberry Shortcake channel features the lead character describing the company's "Food Fair" app, through which characters pick ingredients for recipes. The video ends with a banner ad showing kids where the featured app can be downloaded. That's like having your kids' favorite TV character take them to a store and show them a cool new toy. Would you really expect them not to ask you to buy it?
In addition to the promotional videos, consumer groups say some of the videos on the site include ads that aren't labeled clearly.
"Many of the video segments endorsing toys, candy and other products that appear to be 'user-generated' have undisclosed relationships with product manufacturers in violation of the FTC's guidelines concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising," said the letter than the groups sent to the FTC on April 7. The complaint alleges that some of the "unboxing" genre of videos — the kind that feature a person or character opening newly purchased toys, clothes and electronics — may not be as genuine as they appear.
The complaint also notes that videos and advertising on YouTube Kids are played in a continuous stream, which breaks the TV advertising rule requiring a a five-second "bumper" between ads and shows.
In short, YouTube Kids has some work to do. As always, parents need to keep a sharp eye on what their kids are watching, even if it's on a seemingly innocent app for kids.
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