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Groups ask FTC to probe kid-focused viral marketing

Seventeen advocacy groups called on the federal agency to investigate what they called the "commercial exploitation of youths" though viral marketing campaigns.

A number of child protection and privacy groups have asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch an inquiry into viral campaigns that are centered on children through online networks.

The main cause for complaint involves what is known as "tell a friend" or "refer a friend" campaigns. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and 16 other advocacy groups named McDonald's, Viacom, Turner Broadcasting -- known for its Cartoon Network channel -- General Mills and Subway in five separate complaints with the FTC.

At the center is the contention that these major corporations have violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The complainants argue that by encouraging children to play brand-based games then share their experiences with friends -- by providing an email address -- not only does the practice violate COPPA, but this kind of marketing is "unfair" and "troubling".

The groups say within the complaint:

Such tell-a-friend campaigns, a powerful form of word-of-mouth marketing traditionally directed at teens and adults, are inherently unfair and deceptive when aimed at children, who often aren't even aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages. The practices also violate existing privacy laws for children.

In a letter sent to the FTC (.pdf), the CDD uses several examples. McDonald's invites children to create music videos through uploading a picture or using a webcam, where the face is superimposed onto a cartoon character. After creation, the child can enter up to four friends to receive an email with the subject line: "You've been tagged for fun by a friend! Check it out! It's a Star in Video at the McDonald's Happy Meal Website."

ftc complaint marketing children mcdonalds campaign

General Mills has a "DJ Tool" for children, where content can also be shared through email addresses.

The advocates want the FTC to investigate these companies for "unfair and deceptive marketing practices", which also allow children to submit their personal information and that of their friends without parental consent. Not only this, but the groups are calling for an update to COPPA which considers modern data collection and behavioral targeting directed at children.

Kathryn C. Montgomery, who led the campaign in the 1990s for passage of COPPA commented:

These are particularly insidious practices. The companies identified in these complaints are clearly trying to circumvent privacy safeguards for children. They are also enlisting kids and their friends in deceptive marketing schemes disguised as play -- in some cases for junk foods and other unhealthy products -- completely under the radar of parents.

This item first appeared on ZDNet under the headline "FTC asked to investigate viral marketing campaigns aimed at kids."