Pop quiz: Which of these are commercials?
A video describing what McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets are made of.
A video showing LEGO toys being opened and assembled.
A video in which characters from the Disney movie “Frozen” drink Sprite.
All appear on YouTube Kids, a new free app — described as “kid-friendly content” for “curious little minds” — that mixes ad-like videos with traditional shows. On Monday, a Boston consumer group told federal regulators it’s hard to tell the ads from the programming, so YouTube Kids should be subject to federal rules on deceptive advertising.
The complaint highlights what advocates say is a void in the digital regulatory landscape: how to apply rules for children’s TV ads to content watched on tablets and smartphones.
It’s a mounting concern as online media companies increasingly tailor their advertising to children — potentially a hugely lucrative market — and as a growing number of kids consume digital entertainment.
“In today’s world, it doesn’t make any sense to distinguish between television and other types of screens,” said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston nonprofit that helped initiate a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Google Inc., which owns YouTube Kids.
“This application is essentially just watching videos,” added Golin, who met in Washington, D.C., with FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, Bureau of Consumer Protection director Jessica Rich, and several FTC staff attorneys. “From a child’s point of view, there’s not really any difference between watching on an app versus watching on television.”
Two-thirds of prekindergarten-age children in the United States use tablet devices, and one-third own their own tablet, according to the advertising consulting firm Communicus.
Even more troubling to consumer advocates is research showing that young children are particularly susceptible to advertising and are not developmentally mature enough to distinguish between ads and other types of media.
That youthful vulnerability is why regulations on children’s TV advertising were introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1970s and have been continually updated since. But several watchdog groups say YouTube Kids, launched by Google in February, violates numerous longstanding regulatory safeguards.
The app has big colorful buttons and can be voice-activated by children not yet able to read or write. It allows them to watch episodes of programs such as “Sesame Street” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” and offers some access to shows by providers such as DreamWorksTV and National Geographic Kids.
It also has “branded channels” ranging from Barbie to Fisher-Price to My Little Pony to McDonald’s and offers “unboxing” videos in which YouTube users film themselves opening toys.
In their FTC complaint (filed with the FTC because the Federal Communications Commission does not regulate digital media), advocates accuse Google of unfair and deceptive business practices, such as blurring the line between programming and advertising; breaking a rule that bars characters in a children’s program from pitching merchandise while that show airs; violating a ban on product placements; and ignoring limits on how much advertising can be incorporated into children’s programming.
Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International, another Boston nonprofit that signed the FTC complaint, said the debate comes down to this question: If children are watching videos on a smartphone or tablet, are they essentially watching television? And if so, should those videos have to abide by rules created for children’s television advertising?
“If it’s an ad or game or video clearly designed to appeal to kids, it needs to be held to the same standards as TV advertising,” Bragg said.
Added Golin: “Google has obliterated any boundaries between advertising and content, and that’s incredibly confusing to a young child.”
Google did not respond to a request for comment, but when the FTC complaint was filed earlier this month, it defended YouTube Kids, saying it was developed in consultation with children’s advocates and privacy groups. It also says the app filters out mature content and lets parents monitor how long children have been using it.
Google has also argued that by relying on ad revenue, it is able to offer the app for free.
“The big question here is how we want our children to interact on the Internet and whether we want them to be marketed to in this way,” Bragg said. “This is an area that parents can no longer protect their kids from, and corporations are taking advantage of that to market to kids at every turn.”
Online advertising is “so effective and so manipulative,” he added, “that we need to be able to protect our kids from it so they can use the Internet in a safe way.”
The FTC complaint, filed by Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation, is backed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, and Public Citizen.
After reviewing the complaint, the FTC will determine whether to order Google to change its marketing practices on YouTube Kids.