The YouTube Kids app is supposed to make watching YouTube videos a more child-friendly experience, but two US campaigning groups claim that it is not filtering out promotional videos for “junk food”.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) have filed new complaints with regulator the Federal Trade Commission, following objections lodged in April when YouTube Kids launched in the US.
The groups claim to have found promotional videos for products from 17 food and drinks manufacturers, including 47 TV ads and 11 longer videos for Coke and Coke Zero; as well as 31 ads and 21 promotional placements for biscuit brand Oreos.
Their complaints note that both companies have promised not to market their products to children, and call for the FTC to investigate the 17 companies alongside YouTube.
“Far from being a safe place for kids to explore, YouTube Kids is awash with food and beverage marketing that you won’t find on other media platforms for young children,” said CCFC’s executive director Josh Golin.
“Our new complaints underscore why the FTC needs to stop Google from engaging in what are nothing less than harmful, unethical, and irresponsible practices that target America’s youngest children,” added CCD’s executive director, Jeff Chester.
Chester told the Guardian that his organisation plans to ask European regulators – including those in the UK and Ireland, where YouTube Kids recently launched – to also investigate the app’s relationships with advertisers.
YouTube said “We only show ads that are approved as family-friendly – for example, we don’t show any food and beverage ads – and all ads undergo a rigorous review process for compliance with our policies.” However, that covers the pre-roll ads that YouTube itself shows between videos in the YouTube Kids app.
TV ads uploaded to YouTube by brands like Coca-Cola and Oreos do not fall under this policy: as far as the app is concerned, they are videos rather than ads, and thus fall under – or judging by the latest complaint, fall between the cracks of – its algorithms filtering out videos that are inappropriate for children.
Or, as the YouTube Kids parental guide puts it:
“Videos uploaded by users to YouTube are not paid ads and therefore they are not marked as an ad nor are they subject to our advertising policies. This may also include content about or from companies who may have also purchased ads in the app. For example, a search for trains could result in train cartoons, songs and videos of real trains, as well as a TV commercial for toy trains uploaded by a user or a toy train company, none of which we consider as paid ads, as they are not part of the YouTube Kids advertising program.”
The CCFC and CDD’s complaint also highlights another grey area for YouTube Kids: videos from channels aimed at children where brands have paid for product placement or sponsored entire videos.
It cites the example of a video published by the popular EvanTubeHD channel where its young stars – who have more than 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube – taste 12 varieties of Oreo biscuits while blindfolded, and try to guess their flavours.
Watch the video here
EvanTubeHD, like many of the most popular children’s YouTube channels, regularly publishes “unboxing” videos featuring toys and other products. The CCFC and CDD are calling for regulators to investigate whether the commercial relationships between children’s channels and brands are being properly disclosed.
The groups have also criticised YouTube for changes made to the YouTube Kids advertising policy this summer, removing a reference to “partner-sold ads” – for example, product placement deals struck by children’s channels – in its rules about advertising having to be pre-approved by YouTube before being shown in the app.
YouTube said: “YouTube Kids prohibits paid advertising for all food and beverage brands. We also ask YouTube creators to disclose if their videos contain paid product placement or incentivised endorsements and we exclude those videos from the YouTube Kids app.
“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.”