Ban Sought in U.S. for YouTube Ads ‘Masquerading’ as Kids’ Shows

(Bloomberg) -- Consumer privacy watchdogs asked U.S. regulators to stop Google and other companies from running online children’s programs laden with unlabeled advertisements for such products as snack foods and toys on websites including YouTube and Instagram.

The complaint dated Friday to the Federal Trade Commission extends the debate over marketing to children, which long has been restricted on traditional television, to online channels that increasingly are drawing attention from youths -- and advertisers.

“It defies common sense that a harmful tactic which exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities would be prohibited on one platform but allowed on another,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “We need the FTC to take decisive action so that children have the same protections when they’re watching YouTube as they do when they watch Nickelodeon.”

The online shows “take unfair advantage of kids, who do not have the ability to recognize that companies use social media and YouTube celebrities to pitch toys, junk food, and other products,” Golin’s group, along with two other privacy advocates, the Center for Digital Democracy and Public Citizen, said in a news release Friday.

Popular Channels

Alphabet Inc.’s Google facilitates the proliferation of the advertisements on its YouTube platform, the groups said. Popular YouTube channels such as EvanTubeHD, Baby Ariel, Meghan McCarthy, the Eh Bee Family and Bratayley -- each with millions of subscribers -- present videos of child stars unboxing toys, playing games, and enthusiastically sampling junk food, according to the groups.

“Companies like Google are knowingly taking advantage of our children -- and their parents -- by unleashing a torrent of stealth digital ads disguised as programming,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

The sponsored shows appearing online wouldn’t be permitted on traditional TV because Federal Communications Commission rules restrict the practice, Chester said in an interview.

"These safeguards to protect children from unfair television advertisements only apply to broadcast and cable -- online is a totally unregulated zone when it comes to kids’ advertising,” Chester said.

The Walt Disney Co.’s Maker Studios is a "major source of child-oriented marketing” including a YouTube channel, EvanTubeHD, that features an 8-year-old who reviews and plays with popular toys and tests snack foods, the groups said.

An FTC spokesman declined to comment, as did a representative of Google. Disney didn’t respond to a request for comment.