Google, Awesomeness TV and Maker Studios Come Under Fire for Influencer Marketing to Kids

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AwesomenessTV, one of the companies cited in a complaint by advocacy groups over influencer marketing directed toward children.
AwesomenessTV, one of the companies cited in a complaint by advocacy groups over influencer marketing directed toward children. Credit: AwesomenessTV/Dreamworks
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A group of industry watchdogs are calling for Google, DreamWorks' Awesomeness TV, Walt Disney's Maker Studios and two other companies to stop influencer marketing that targets children.

The Center for Digital Democracy, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Public Citizen on Friday filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking the agency to investigate and take action against the companies for what they called "unfair and deceptive practice of targeting influencer marketing toward children." They also urged the FTC to issue policy guidelines that would prohibit companies from using influencers to target children.

It has become increasingly common for marketers to create content featuring popular personalities on YouTube, which is part of Google, and other online celebrities to promote their brands and products on social platforms.

In a press release, the advocacy groups argued that these "'influencer' ads 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."

The advocacy groups pointed to videos of child stars unboxing toys, playing games and sampling junk food that appear on YouTube channels.

Representatives of Google, Awesomeness TV, Maker Studios and the FTC did not respond to requests for comment.

(Update: A Google spokeswoman said in an email that YouTube wants content creators to be up front with viewers if their videos include any kind of paid promotion. "As our long-standing policy makes clear, anyone uploading videos to YouTube has a legal obligation to disclose to YouTube and their viewers if a video contains paid promotion," she said. "Any videos that have disclosed paid product placement or endorsements are restricted from the YouTube Kids app.")

The Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center is representing the groups making the complaint.

"Child-directed influencer marketing is misleading to children because their developing brains do not process or understand advertisements the way adults do -- especially advertisements disguised as content," said Laura Moy, director at the institute, in the press release.

FTC regulations require influencer marketing to be identified as advertising. But the groups argued Friday that disclosure is not enough because it "would not negate the inherent deceptiveness of child-directed influencer marketing."

The Center for Digital Democracy and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have previously filed complaints with the FTC concerning child-directed marketing practices on YouTube and its Kids hub, specifically for mixing ads and content. The FTC did not take any action.

Last year YouTube added parental controls to its Kids app to allow parents to restrict their kids' searches.

The FTC has been cracking down on influencer marketing. The agency has said celebrities who are getting paid to promote a product need to indicate such in their social posts. From the marketers' perspective, however, hashtags like "#ad" or "#sp" for "sponsored" make the posts seem less authentic and natural.

Warner Bros. settled charges with the FTC this summer over its marketing for the video game "Middle Earth: Shadow Mordor." The FTC charged that Warner Bros did not ensure that influencers disclosed that they had been paid to promote the video game. And earlier this year Lord & Taylor settled charges over a social campaign where it paid influencers to post photos of themselves wearing a dress but influencers did not disclose the sponsorship.