Creating children's advertising is full of potential regulatory pitfalls.
For instance: If you show children playing in a pool, you better make sure the ad includes a shot of adult supervision. Or if an ad animates a toy, it cannot mislead kids into thinking it moves on its own if it does not do so in real life.
Get it wrong and you might have to reshoot.
To avoid expensive mistakes and reprimands, more marketers are turning to the Children's Advertising Review Unit for assistance ahead of time.
It's called "prescreening" in industry parlance, and CARU is now doing it in 200 campaigns annually, compared with just a handful a few years ago, according to the unit, which oversees procedures established by the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council.
"It's really caught fire," said CARU Director Wayne Keeley. "By catching problems early on in these prescreens, we don't open up as many cases because we're basically finding issues and resolving them at earlier stages."
The unit handled 65 formal cases in both 2011 and 2010, vs. 72 in 2009 and 84 in 2008. The drop is significant given the growing number of online marketing avenues, which increases the odds for mistakes.
Established in 1974 and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, CARU oversees all advertising directed to children 11 and younger (12 and younger for certain web oversight, such as online data collection). The 15-page rulebook covers a range of potential issues, including deception, misleading claims, sweepstakes, web content, data-collection practices and blurring of editorial content with advertising.
When violations are found, CARU relies on advertisers' voluntary cooperation to resolve problems. Some of the policies overlap with federal law, such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. If marketers don't respond, the unit will sometimes refer the case to government agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission.
In February, for example, it notified the FTC about concerns that the "Kid Zone" on a website run by the Clearwater Aquarium could be collecting information from children without parental consent. The aquarium has since removed that portion of its site.
Marketers must be dues-paying CARU members to get prescreening, which is free. The unit has 75 marketer members, including Burger King, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Kellogg. Membership fees range form $3,500 to about $60,000 a year, depending on kid-targeted media spending.
CARU staffers are asked to review campaigns at all stages in the creative process, Mr. Keeley said.
John Feldman, an advertising lawyer with Reed Smith, said there is resistance to prescreening in certain cases because "advertisers don't like to get their creativity stunted before it gets on the air."
Michele Totonis, a lawyer for longtime CARU member Lego, said the company regularly prescreens campaigns. In recent years, Lego has received advice on how to distinguish content, such as online mini-movies, from advertising. Her recommendation for other marketers is to run campaigns by CARU early in the process.
"You save money, and you save energy and effort," Ms. Totonis said.