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YouTube Faces Complaints Over Junk Food Ads

“Here’s your ticket, Reese, let’s go!” An animated Hershey’s Kiss hands a Reese’s Peanut Buttercup a ticket to a sprawling candy-filled venue, featuring a chocolate-themed amusement ride, a parade of dancing chocolate bars, and mountains of chocolate samples. They excitedly chatter about this “sweet” place, Hershey’s Chocolate World, urging viewers to join them at the chocolate theme park.

ThinkstockPhotos-478823059Thousands of children have watched this Hershey’s advertisement on the mobile app, YouTube Kids, an offshoot of YouTube’s main app. And now, several consumer advocacy groups are trying to scrub the app of the Hershey’s candy commercial and hundreds of others like it. They recently called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Hershey’s—along with a slew of other food companies with similar ads on the app—for advertising allegedly unhealthy snacks and drinks to impressionable children.

The consumer groups argue that these chocolate and food companies are flouting a promise that they made not to market certain innutritious foods to young people, and are therefore violating a federal statute that prohibits deceptive trade practices. Food manufacturers claim that they have done nothing wrong and that the accessibility of online videos via YouTube Kids is a problem that Google, which owns YouTube, has created.

The alleged violations of consumer protection law, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, stem primarily from pledges companies have made to not to advertise innutritious food to children. The consumer groups point to ten companies—including Burger King, McDonalds, General Mills, and Nestle—that are members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulating body aimed at influencing the foods that are advertised to children under twelve in order to encourage healthy eating habits. Each member that wishes to advertise to children under twelve has pledged to submit to the CFBAI a list of its products meeting CFBAI’s nutrition criteria. Any product that fails to meet these criteria is not supposed to be advertised.

The consumer groups allege that nearly all of the CFBAI members have broken with this pledge through online advertising. Because YouTube Kids is intended for children five-years-old and younger, the consumer advocates claim that companies should not advertise many of their food products on the app, as they do not meet CFBAI’s nutrition criteria.

Yet these companies allegedly continue to do so anyway, with more than 400 of their promotional videos for snacks and drinks appearing on YouTube Kids, according to the consumer advocates. For instance, one advertisement on YouTube Kids shows viewers ten different ways to eat Nutella—a chocolate product owned by Ferraro USA, a CFBAI member. The consumer groups claim that a host of other promotional videos for non-approved products can be found on the app, including Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s, Kellogg’s Pringles, and PepsiCo’s Doritos.

The consumer groups want a FTC investigation into the companies’ practices, arguing that broken pledges constitute a deceptive practice under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act. Because Section 3 of the same statute authorizes the FTC to investigate deceptive practices, the consumer groups claim that the agency should use its enforcement power to investigate the companies’ advertising practices.

Yet the CFBAI says that it is not to blame for this issue. According to the organization, its members have not purchased advertisements on YouTube Kids, in keeping with their CFBAI pledge. Rather, third-party users—in this case, individual users and certain YouTube food-oriented channels, such as POPSUGAR Food—upload the content. The CFBAI explains that this problem is a function of the app’s search function, which permits third-party users to bring the companies’ promotional content from YouTube’s main app—where no one disputes that they are permitted to advertise their products—into YouTube Kids without the companies’ agreement. The organization argues that the only solution is for Google, which owns YouTube Kids, to reconfigure its search algorithm to prevent the content from being uploaded to the kid’s app.

“[The] petition wrongly asserts that the CFBAI’s participating companies are not complying with their commitments to market responsibly,” CFBAI Director Elaine D. Kolish said. “This is an issue with technology and is one that [the] CFBAI and the participants have asked Google to fix with an engineering solution.”

The consumer groups counter that even if third-party users are uploading CFBAI members’ promotional content, the companies still can prevent the content from appearing on YouTube Kids. They can use a system on Google that allows a copyright holder to block any party besides the itself from uploading a copy of a YouTube video.

YouTube Kids claims that it carefully screens all content on the app, and applies an especially “rigorous review process” for selecting which advertisements to feature. But the consumer groups argue that YouTube Kids’ policies are just as problematic as the food companies’ advertisements.

According to YouTube Kids’ Parental Guide, the only content flagged as an an “ad” is paid advertising. This means that an ad uploaded to YouTube that initially appeared on television is not an ad because the company did not pay YouTube Kids to upload and feature the ads. The Parental Guide also states that the videos that YouTube users upload are not subject to YouTube Kids’ advertising policies. As a result, YouTube Kids’ definition of an “ad” allows much of the most problematic content to fall through the cracks, the consumer groups assert, and thus the FTC should investigate the app’s policies as well.

A YouTube spokesperson reportedly acknowledged that “[t]he app contains a wide-range of content, including videos with food-related themes [that] are not paid advertisements.” However, she added that parents can select stricter control options so that their children are exposed to fewer videos.

Whether the FTC will decide to launch an investigation remains to be seen. The FTC does not comment on the status of investigations, according to the agency’s policy, but a spokesperson reportedly said that it reviews all complaints that are submitted.

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