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Industry ad rules reviewed

The chances of Joe Camel ever having a Web page grow more remote as the advertising industry releases its voluntary rules for marketing to children on the Net.

The chances of Joe Camel ever having an official Web page grew more remote today when the advertising industry released its own voluntary rules for marketing to children on the Net.

The Children's Advertising Review Unit introduced its first set of voluntary regulations for online advertising aimed at children under age 12, an effort it has been working on since 1995. CARU, as it is known, is a part of the Better Business Bureau and is advised by advertising associations, educators, and child development experts.

The rules prohibit using of cartoon characters, "kids' clubs," and interactive games to sell products over the Net without disclosing first that the site is advertising. This rule has brought into question the use of well-known logos such as Joe Camel, which uses a cartoon character even though the product is clearly legal only for adults. Some consumer watchdog groups have accused cigarette and alcohol sellers of catering to children in their online adverstising.

According to the guidelines, interactive sites should also "remind" underage surfers to get parental permission before collecting information from kids. And online ordering instructions must "clearly and prominently state" that a child must get parental approval first before making an online transaction.

The guidelines come after heightened concern over the solicitation of valuable demographic information from kids about themselves and their parents. Watchdog groups and regulatory agencies also are taking a hard look at Web sites that advertise and sell alcohol online, as well as the slew of recently launched online services targeted at kids that may blur the lines between editorial content and advertising.

The industry is trying to voluntarily regulate itself, probably in the hopes of preempting the imposition of legally binding rules from government agencies. But it's not clear if the efforts have gone far enough to keep the government out of the picture.

Christine Varney of the Federal Trade Commission will supervise a review of CARU's rules in June along with other proposals during a four-day hearing about online privacy, with half of the time devoted to children's issues.

The FTC will then make recommendations to Congress on ways to solicit from kids on the Net, conduct secure transactions, and collect and sell personal information.

One group, the Center for Media Education, has been pushing the FTC and Congress to set strict rules for the online collection of data from kids.

The CME says that although CARU's guidelines show good faith, the voluntary code has no teeth. "We applaud the fact that the industry is still trying to address the problem, but their guidelines are inadequate," executive director of the Center for Media Education Jeff Chester said today.

"We would require online marketers to get parental permission in writing, with full and accurate disclosure of why the data is being collected and how it will be used before collecting information from children. Just having a online disclaimer that tells kids to tell their parents first is not going to work," he added.

The Center for Media Education released a report in March charging tobacco and alcohol companies with enticing underage buyers by pushing their products on the Net.

Commissioner Varney agrees that the online rules need to be more stringent when it comes to gathering details from kids. "I won't say that this will work on the Net. I'm concerned that they don't explicitly say you should not collect detailed information from kids without their parents consent," she said today.

Whether voluntary regulation will work on the Net also needs to be addressed. "I think what's most important about the CARU plan is that it is largely industry-based. These are the people who are targeting kids and collecting information. CARU works very well with the broadcast industry, which won't take ads that CARU rejects," she added. "But the interactive nature of the Net allows companies to solicit a lot more information than they can from television."

CARU says it is aware of the criticisms but counters that its guidelines are only a first step. "I don't think it is realistic to require parental permission in writing now. This is a voluntary system, so we need to start with a minimal standard. I'm a big proponent of self-regulation--we can move much faster," said Elizabeth Lascoutx, vice president and director of CARU.

Big brands with kids such as General Mills, Kelloggs, Nintendo, Hasbro, Sega, and Disney all pitched in to create the new rules, Lascoutx added.

"We've rejected the argument that all branded environments are advertising. Advertising online is when there is product to sell. You can play a matching game with Toucan Sam and that's not advertising, but the minute he says, 'buy Fruit Loops,' that is advertising," said CARU's Lascoutx.