Commentary

YouTube Kids App Under Fire For Food And Bev Content

The YouTube Kids app for children under 12 is “awash with food and beverage marketing that you won’t find on other media platforms for young children,” according to a complaint filed at the Federal Trade Commission yesterday by a two advocacy groups. 

A second complaint maintains “many videos on YouTube Kids appear to result from relationships and payments between advertisers, YouTube creators, and various intermediaries, including multichannel video programmers and advertising agencies that specialize in ‘influencer’ marketing.” It expands on a complaint filed in April.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) led the actions.  

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“Young children simply don’t have the cognitive ability to distinguish between ads and programming, and YouTube Kids takes advantage of that fact, the groups believe,” writes Sarah Perez for TechCrunch.

“Even though the Coca-Cola Company has pledged to not market any beverages to children under 12, CCFC and CDD found 47 television commercials and 11 longer promotional videos for Coke and Coke Zero on YouTube Kids,” according to a release publicizing the complaint. 

“Similarly, Mondelez International has pledged not to market Oreos to children, but CCFC and CDD found 31 TV commercials and 21 product placements for Oreos on YouTube Kids. In one 11-minute video, the YouTube star Evan of ‘EvanTubeHD’ and his sister compete to identify 12 different flavors of Oreos,” it says. 

“Google-owned YouTube says that all ads in the Kids app are pre-approved by YouTube’s policy team, ensuring that they adhere to the company’s standards, which prohibit ads that show food and beverages,” writes Julia Greenberg for Wired. “But screenshots provided in the complaint show what appear to be ads, promotional videos, or videos with product placement selling Reese’s peanut butter cups, Crunch bars, Hershey Kisses, Nutella, and Pop Tarts.”

YouTube also said that “the app contains a wide range of content, including videos with food-related themes, but these are not paid advertisements. We also provide parents the ability to turn search off and restrict the YouTube Kids experience to a more limited set of videos,” writes Stuart Dredge for The Guardian

And a YouTube spokeswoman tells the Los Angeles Times’ Saba Hamedy: “While we are always open to feedback on ways to improve the app, we were not contacted directly by the signers of this letter and strongly disagree with their contentions, including the suggestion that no free, ad-supported experience for kids will ever be acceptable. We disagree and think that great content shouldn’t be reserved for only those families who can afford it.”

“Many of the companies that make the products are members of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an industry self-regulation program that has pledged not to advertise to children under 12,” CNBC’s James Eng writes.

A source tells the New York Times’ Cecilia Kang that the FTC has been reviewing the April complaint. “Any investigation of the previous complaint and the new filings would not be public, said Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC,” Kang writes.

“This is the most hyper-commercialized media for kids I have ever seen,” Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona who had a hand in drafting the complaint, tells the LAT’s Hamedy. “Children don't understand the persuasive intent of advertising.” Not only that, “food companies and Google have teamed up for an end-run around America's parents,” Kunkel charges in the release publicizing the actions.

In related news, the U.K. watchdog group Ofcom has concluded that “children are becoming more trusting of what they see online, but sometimes lack the understanding to decide whether it is true or impartial.”

For example, only 33% of young people aged 12 to 15 knew the difference between Google search results that were advertisements and those that were not, James Vincent reported for The Verge. “This figure was even lower — less than one in five — for children aged 8 to 11,” he writes.

The report found that “children are increasingly turning to YouTube for ‘true and accurate’ information about what's going on in the world. The video sharing site is the preferred choice for this kind of information among nearly one in ten (8%) online children, up from just 3% in 2014,” according to the release for the study released Friday.

“But only half of 12-15s (52%) who watch YouTube are aware that advertising is the main source of funding on the site, and less than half (47%) are aware that ‘vloggers’ (video bloggers) can be paid to endorse products or services,” it states.

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