It hasn’t been a great week for YouTube.
On Wednesday — the same day that the video platform’s parent, Google, agreed to pay $170 million to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that YouTube illegally collected data on children — a nonprofit advocacy group filed a complaint with the FTC alleging deceptive advertising by one of the most popular so-called “kidfluencer” channels on the platform.
Marketing watchdog Truth in Advertising (TINA.org) filed the complaint, which accuses Ryan ToysReview — a channel featuring 7-year-old Ryan Kaji reviewing toys — of deceptively promoting “a multitude of products to millions of preschool-aged children, in violation of FTC law.”
The complaint alleges that the child’s parents, Shion and Kieu-Loan Kaji (Kaji is a stage name used for privacy and safety reasons), who lead the “multimillion-dollar company” behind the site, are targeting preschoolers who can’t differentiate content from ads with “sponsored videos that often have the look and feel of organic content.”
The site — which has more than 20 million subscribers and has amassed more than 30 million views since its launch in 2015 —promotes toys and other products from sponsors, and also promotes channel spin-offs that include a Ryan’s World toy line and a new Nickelodeon show starring the child, “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” according to the complaint.
The organization says that its analysis of the Ryan videos on the channel between January 1 and July 31 this year found that 90% of them contained at least one reference to products for kids under five.
“Ryan ToysReview’s sponsored content is presented in a manner that misleadingly blurs the distinction between advertising and organic content for its intended audience,” states the complaint. “According to the FTC, when such a blending of content occurs, any material connection between an endorser (e.g., Ryan ToysReview) and the seller of the advertised product (e.g., Hardee’s, Chuck E. Cheese, Walmart, Nickelodeon, etc.) must be clearly and conspicuously disclosed 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…”
The organization also points out that the Federal Communications Commission “has a longstanding policy that prohibits product placements in television programs produced and broadcast to children 12 years old and under.”
Shion Kaji released a statement in response to TINA.org’s complaint: “The well-being of our viewers is always the top priority for us and we strictly follow all platforms’ terms of service and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising disclosure requirements. As the streaming space continues to quickly grow and evolve, we support efforts by lawmakers, industry representatives, and regulators such as the FTC to continuously evaluate and update existing guidelines and lay new ground rules to protect both viewers and creators.”
Ryan ToysReview has been the subject of previous complaints.
In a letter to the FTC last month urging the agency to
update its guidance for online content directed at children, a group of senators noted that two years ago, The Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Better Business Bureau’s
Advertising Self-Regulatory Council had found that the channel failed to adequately disclose the commercial nature of some of its videos.
The senators also specifically urged the FTC to immediately investigate and “take more action” against marketers involved in the integration of advertising into online content directed to children. The August letter, like an earlier one sent in May, stresses the need to investigate Ryan ToysReview, which “is clearly directed at young children and, since our [May] letter, has posted two undisclosed commercials for fast food restaurant Carl’s Jr. as part of a partnership with the restaurant’s parent company.”