By: Amy Mudge, Mike Ingram and Carolina Alonso

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) recently held their “Kidvertising” workshop to discuss the revised CARU Advertising Guidelines, which are set to take effect on January 1, 2022. The workshop tackled several issues important to child advertising including diversity and inclusion, influencers, and in-app and in-game advertising. Throughout the workshop, CARU continued to emphasize that children can often struggle to determine what is and what is not an advertisement. It was for many the first opportunity to hear the perspectives of the relatively new CARU director, Mamie Kresses, as well as the CARU staff, Jim Davis and Debra Policarpo.

While discussing the importance of diversity and inclusion efforts in children’s advertising, CARU emphasized how important it is for children to see themselves represented, while also avoiding engaging in stereotypes. Highlighting recent changes made by Lego to encourage children of all genders to use their toys, CARU admonished other ads that rely on harmful stereotyping. This idea is echoed in the new guidelines which state that “[a]dvertising should be respectful of human dignity and diversity. Advertising should not portray or encourage negative social stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination.” CARU believes that children’s advertising can “promote positive change” by featuring and promoting diversity and inclusion in the ads. Because children may not be able to ascertain the difference in sponsored content and programming, it is imperative that sponsored content is created in accordance with the highest ideals of what society can be. Time will tell whether CARU actually opens cases based on unfair stereotyping allegations, or whether this will be more of an aspirational goal.

Influencers, endorsements and disclosures featured heavily in this conference as CARU is focusing on the pint-sized influencers. The revised guidelines make clear that the mere presence of a celebrity, influencer or authority figure can alter a child’s perception of a product. It’s important to recognize that what influences a child will be different than what influences an adult, as children have been shown to develop bonds with cartoon characters and mascots. Special attention should be paid to the use of such characters, and proper disclosures should be effected to avoid an improper endorsement. Endorsers should clearly and conspicuously disclose, in a manner that is observable by an ordinary child, any material connection to the advertiser. This standard is different from the standard employed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) when policing ads for adults; CARU believes ads and their relevant disclosures should be read in the way a child would. Simply placing “#Ad” next to a cartoon fish would likely not be enough for a child to understand that the fish is influencing them to purchase a mobile game. Any disclosures included in an advertisement targeting children should take into account the limited vocabulary and level of language of the children the ad is aimed at. Additionally, disclosures should be made in the same media in which the claim is made. Meaning that if the claim is featured in both the audio and visual aspect of the advertisement, then the disclosures should also be featured both audibly and visually.

Mobile gaming and in-app marketing was a major feature of this workshop and the revised guidelines. With in-game content comes the concept of blurring and the issues CARU perceives can come with this. Blurring refers to the mixing of advertising content and non-advertising content. While adults may be able to discern the differences, children may not be able to. To prevent blurring, CARU recommends that advertisers provide additional contextual clues and engage in commonsense design techniques to help a child distinguish. Specifically regarding in-app content, CARU wants advertisers to avoid unfair, deceptive and manipulative tactics such as door openers and social pressure. As explained previously, children have been observed to form attachments to cartoon characters. So while an adult gamer may be able to click past an ad featuring fish trapped in a tiny bowl asking for five coins to free them, a child may feel pressure to help their friend. In-game rewards and currency that require real-world transactions should clearly and conspicuously disclose this.

With these revised guidelines taking effect in 2022, the FTC’s newly enacted compulsory process resolutions on acts affecting children, and the COPPA rule update looming on the horizon, advertising to children will become even more of a major focus of regulators.