YouTube Kids app under fire for marketing junk food to children

As Google's YouTube launched its children's app in Canada on Tuesday, two U.S. child advocacy groups filed new complaints with the Federal Trade Commission over its marketing of pop and candy to children.

11-minute video about identifying flavours of Oreo is one of multiple product placement videos

Content on the YouTube Kids app is supposed to be safe for young children, but critics have pointed to videos that are extended product placement. (CBC)

As Google's YouTube launched its children's app in Canada on Tuesday, two U.S. child advocacy groups filed new complaints with the Federal Trade Commission over its marketing of pop and candy to children.

The YouTube Kids App is supposed to be a safe zone for children under age 12, but the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) found both product placement in videos and inappropriate ads.

"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 Josh Golin in a news release.

Canada's code of conduct for advertising to children on broadcast media does not allow any kind of marketing to pre-schoolers and prohibits use of cartoon characters or program stars to market products. It also limits food advertising that could discourage a healthy diet.

Food and beverage companies in the U.S. have signed on to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which prohibits marketing to children under the age of 12.

But internet services don't fall under broadcast rules, hence the appeal to a trade commission rather than the broadcast regulator.

End run around parents 

Golin said Google is doing an end run around these rules and around parents by claiming it does not allow junk food marketing on the app, Golin said.

In one 11-minute video, the YouTube star Evan of EvanTubeHD, a Disney production, and his sister compete to identify 12 different flavours of Oreos in an extended instance of product placement.

The advocacy groups also found 47 television commercials and 11 longer promotional videos for Coke and Coke Zero on YouTube Kids although Coca-Cola Co. has pledged to stop marketing pop to children through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

It is the second complaint to the FTC over advertising to children on YouTube Kids. The first was filed in April after the app launched in the U.S.

This complaint enlarges on the relationship between advertisers and makers of the YouTube videos, highlighting the use of "influencer marketing" in creating the videos.

Launched in Canada

The CCFC claims Google is engaged in "harmful, unethical, and irresponsible practices" that target the youngest children.

In a launch event on Tuesday, Angela Lin, head of YouTube Kids & Learning Partnerships in North America, said the app, which allows kids to watch videos on smartphones or tablets, is designed to be family friendly.

It has parental controls for aspects like screen time and whether search is on or off, she said, and ads are clearly marked.

"Any ad that appears there is an ad bumper that makes it very clear that an ad is about to show," Lin told CBC News.

"We wanted to make the YouTube Kids app free for kids anywhere in the world, so we use ad supporters to make sure that the people who are creating the content are able to be sustainable."

Kids' CBC is one of the content providers for the YouTube Kids app. CBC does not accept advertising for its children's programming for broadcast and does not accept programming that markets to children.


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