Ask almost any exhausted parent, and he or she will agree that kid-centric video apps are a pretty useful invention. YouTube Kids is an app for iOS and Android that targets the preschool set with a wide selection of free clips of cartoons, educational programs and other generally anodyne content. But it may not be as innocent as it seems, thanks to advertisements that blur the line between content and hawking products.
The Georgetown Law Institute for Public Representation, along with eight children’s advocacy groups, penned a document to the FTC entitled “Request for Investigation into Google’s Unfair and Deceptive Practices in Connection with its YouTube Kids App,” and asking the commission to investigate. The 60-page document alleges that the app mixes actual content and commercials in a way that children cannot meaningfully distinguish, and that such behavior would never fly on broadcast or cable TV.
Google advertises YouTube Kids as an app “designed for curious little minds to dive into a world of discovery, learning and entertainment.” While its content matches its mission statement, Georgetown Law argues that some of the content blurs the line between entertainment and commercial.
For example, many of the videos available on the service are user-created toy and candy “unboxing” videos, which highlight excited consumers getting their hands on a new product for the first time. These reviewers often receive products directly from the companies they review, and do not disclose this information in a way that very young children can understand.
While these videos are not advertisements in the strictest sense, they would probably violate FCC television standards that disallow children’s show hosts from hawking particular products. (Young children, generally speaking, have more trouble differentiating ads from entertainment than their older siblings and parents.)
Branded channels also present something of a challenge. The Lego channel, for example, provides cartoons and webisodes about Lego characters, but also hosts full TV commercials for Lego products. Other companies, like McDonald’s, host a mix of narrative content and straight-up ads as well.
Despite speaking out against commercial content, Georgetown Law takes little issue with the actual ads that YouTube Kids shows in-between videos. They tend to be public service announcements for organizations like the U.S. Forestry Service or Adopt U.S. Kids, which, as advertisements go, are fairly inoffensive — arguably even wholesome.