Over the last three years, a consumer watchdog group has increasingly focused on the deceptive ad campaigns of social media influencers’ who maneuver within emerging platforms that are loosely regulated—but now the organization has turned its attention to how children are being exploited in this field.
In late August the non-profit group Truth in Advertising (TINA) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission accusing Ryan ToysReview, possibly the most successful kidfluencer YouTube channel, of “deceptively promot[ing] a multitude of products to millions of preschool-aged children in violation of FTC law.”
Forbes determined in 2018 that Ryan ToysReview earned more money than any other YouTuber. According to that assessment, Ryan ToysReview made $22 million in a year, beating out Jake Paul, Logan Paul, and PewDiePie. The channel currently has 21 million subscribers and the videos have been viewed more than 31 billion times. In the daily videos, the 7-year-old star unboxes toys and engages in various antics involving the toys.
A TINA investigation found that the videos are also advertisements targeting young children, including those under the age of five, a “particularly vulnerable class” who “are unable to identify television commercials and distinguish them from other forms of content,” according to the complaint.
As reported in the complaint and the New York Times coverage, Ryan ToysReview has made sponsorship deals with Chuck E. Cheese, Hasbro, Netflix, Nickelodeon, and Walmart. Yet TINA found that the videos don’t always disclose when the posting is sponsored, and in some cases the disclosure is inadequate.
“A preschooler’s cognitive ability to identify and understand that they are being presented with marketing materials is generally lacking,” the complaint states, adding that the Federal Communications Commission prohibits ads in TV shows for children under the age of 12 for this reason. “Such deceptive ad campaigns are rampant on Ryan ToysReview and are deceiving millions of young children on a daily basis.”
“Kidfluencers like Ryan ToysReview have taken influencer marketing a step too far,” TINA executive director Bonnie Patten said in a statement. “Targeting a vulnerable population that cannot differentiate marketing from organic content is deceptive and the FTC needs to take a stand and put an end to it.”
The FTC has issued warnings to social media influencers to clearly disclose arrangements with brands when posting sponsored content.
“Creating content that is safe and appropriate for our young viewers and their families is very important to us,” Ryan’s father Shion Kaji said in a statement to Gizmodo. “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.”
The complaint was issued around the same time that YouTube parent company Google agreed to pay $170 million to settle an investigation into YouTube’s alleged violation of a child privacy law. That same YouTube announced it will create a new website to host all children’s videos.
Maybe while YouTube is trying to get its act together and act in accordance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act so that it can protect child consumers, it will also find a way to hinder inadequate brand relationship disclosures.