Friday, February 08, 2008

CARU Cracks Down

By way of KidAdLaw, news about a number of recent decisions made by the US-based Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), an industry self-regulatory board which monitors compliance to FCC and FTC regulation on children's advertising. The first involves potentially deceptive advertising aimed at children promoting the Nintendo Wii and Mario Party 8. As the KidAdLaw article decribes:
The Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) reviewed a website ad featuring the game system and the "Mario Party 8" game, advertised as part of a campaign titled, "Wii Would Like to Play." The ad in question featured groups of four people-a family, office mates and young girls at a slumber party-playing Mario Party 8, each with a separate remote control. However, each Wii game console only comes with one remote control.

"CARU was concerned that children watching the advertising at issue could be confused by what is included in the initial purchase of the Wii game system," CARU stated in a summary of its review.

Nintendo said the ad had run its course, and would be pulled from the website. The company also agreed to consider CARU's guidelines.

Interestingly, in the review press release, CARU describes that Nintendo also used industry norms as a justification for the ad in its response:
"Nintendo noted that the advertising at issue was consistent with longstanding industry disclosure practices for marketing of video game systems, games and accessories. However, the company said, it has reviewed its TV advertising guidelines in consideration of CARU’s comments.

This last part is particularly interesting when one considers how industry standards can slowly morph into regulatory standards...which seems to be the underlying argument within Nitendo's mention of this fact in its defense. The fact that deceptive advertising practices are a "longstanding industry disclosure practice" is hardly something to brag about.

The second decision was aimed at kids' sport-themed site called JunkBall, which got a warning about its privacy policy. According to KidAdLaw:
The website, which features promotions and articles on sports products, contained a sign-up feature for "Junk Ball E-News." The sign-up page included the statement that "I am at least 13 years of age," and provided "yes" and "no" options for users to select. A child who clicked "no" was unable to proceed, but he or she could re-select "yes" to register.

COPPA requires site operators to obtain parental consent before gathering personally identifiable information from children who are under 13.

According to the CARU press release:
CARU, in its initial inquiry, questioned whether the Website was properly age screening to determine if parental consent was necessary and whether the site potentially collected personally identifiable information from children without first receiving verifiable parental consent. CARU also questioned whether the operator was collecting more information than was necessary for the e-newsletter.

As a result of its inquiry, CARU recommended that the site tighten privacy controls and better ensure parental consent. It also suggested that the site operator:
...request all previous recipients of the E-newsletter either re-register or be unsubscribed. CARU recommended the Website delete all information for users who fail to re-register.

In response, the site's operators, Little Kids Inc., pulled the e-newsletter feature. However, it sounds like they disagree with the idea of deleting information already collected from users:
The company, in its advertiser's statement, said it disagrees with CARU’s findings, but "appreciates CARU’s observation and suggestions concerning the Junk Ball Website and shares CARU’s goals of protecting children’s privacy."

The third review involved a book published by Discovery Girls magazine, called the Girl's Survival Guide 2007. CARU has asked the magazine to review an ad it had run promoting the book which "urged readers to "order now ... before it's too late" and described the price with qualifiers such as "only" and "just"," asking them to "tone down" their marketing. As described in the CARU press release:
At the outset of its inquiry, CARU questioned whether the advertisement created a sense of urgency for children to purchase the product by employing such language as "order now" and "before it's too late," in violation of CARU's guidelines on sales pressure. Further, CARU questioned the use of the words "only" and "just" to describe the price of the item.

In response, Discovery Girls Inc. has stated that it would accept the CARU's decision and modify their advertising in accordance with CARU guidelines. Of course, as with the Wii decision, it seems that this review may have come a little late...seeing as the book in question is a 2007 "survival guide", which may or may not even be for sale anymore (or at the very least probably isn't being actively promoted at this point).

Is it just me, or does it sound like the children's industries don't really take the CARU's reviews all that seriously? I find that accountability is particularly lacking - it would be impossible for the CARU to review all the relevant ads in its jurisdiction and make decisions about them WHILE the ads are running, so the fact that some ads may have already had their run by the time the review occurs shouldn't mean that the offending party gets away scot free. There really should be some sort of repercussion besides a mere request to "pull" the offending ad(s). Not to mention the ambiguity surrounding what happens if a company disagrees with a CARU finding (as is the case with Junk Ball, and maybe Nintendo, depending on how you read their "industry norm" defense).

If you go to the CARU site, you can also read recent reviews of (whose privacy practices were questioned, esp. in relation to their "Princes of the Month" feature), (which was also questioned for its loose privacy protection practices), and Hanna Montana site (which needs to make it clear that becoming a member of the site will NOT guarantee tickets to Hanna Montana concerts). Lots of privacy infractions going on, making it pretty clear that even though advertising and market research methods are indeed becoming more invasive and subtle, traditional methods are still quite pervasive and need to be monitored diligently.

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