Advocacy Groups Claim Companies Are Using Online Games To Turn Kids Into Tiny Marketers

Playing a game online might seem like an innocent enough activity for a kid, but what if said game is run by McDonald’s and asks for the child’s email address at the end, while encouraging them to share the experience with their friends? That sounds a lot like marketing to kids and using them as tiny marketers without parental consent. So say advocacy groups that are urging the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on companies soliciting email addresses from kids.

There are five big companies the groups have a beef with — McDonald’s and its Happy; Turner Broadcasting’s; General Mills’ and; Viacom’s and Subway’s site.

The consumer advocacy groups filed complaints with the FTC today, urging it to update its 1998 law protecting the privacy of kids on the Internet, reports the Los Angeles Times.

“The FTC should act promptly to stop this commercial exploitation of children,” said the legal counsel for the Center for Digital Democracy, which is spearheading the effort.

So far, Turner Broadcasting says it will review the allegations, while General Mills and Subway claim to be “compliant” with the federal law. Viacom wouldn’t comment on the allegations because it hadn’t seen the complaint but that it doesn’t keep email addresses, and McDonald’s apparently has yet to respond.

The FTC is already trying to change laws protecting kids on the Internet in light of the leaps and bounds made by technology since the law was first written. It announced earlier this month that it wants to make changes to the law, so that sites geared toward kids won’t be able to farm kids’ data and market to them until they’re 14.

The groups are taking issue with “fun” activities on the sites where kids are able to share whatever game they just played with a friend, who then gets an email urging them to check it out. Peer pressure!

“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 aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages,” the groups said.

The total of 14 groups want the FTC to stop such refer-a-friend practices, as they don’t ask for parental permission first to share email addresses of friends. There’s also the issue of storing things like kids’ photos they might upload on certain sites as part of whatever activity they’re participating, “in unprotected, publicly accessible directories.” In short — creepsters might be watching.

FTC urged to bolster online privacy protection for children [Los Angeles Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. pecan 3.14159265 says:

    If chilldren have email addresses, we have bigger problems than McDonald’s marketing to them.

    • That guy. says:

      Good point.

      Then again, how young is too young to have an email address?

      Also, when these types of things suggest sharing with friends, it is typically via Facebook. “Like us on Facebook” or something like that. So in that case, and the kid has a Facebook account where this marketing technique would take place, that makes me wonder. If the kid is supposedly to naive to realize they are helping market a product (and thus need protection), aren’t they too naive to have a Facebook account?

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        I set the bar at 12. At that point you’re old enough to take care of yourself more, think about your impending future as a motorist, and stay home by yourself.

      • RadarOReally has got the Post-Vacation Blues says:

        Well, they’re certainly too young to have a Facebook account, since it’s against Facebook’s Terms of Service. But most parents think that that doesn’t apply to them, because they “just want little Suzy to be able to play Farmville and talk to her Gram-Gram.”

      • HogwartsProfessor says:

        I see a lot of adults who like every damn thing they see. I seriously doubt they realize they’re marketing something either. I’ve seriously considered unfriending people over this.

    • Oh_No84 says:

      I had an email address as a kid in 1994.
      I would think every kid has an email in 2012. It would be weird if a kid did not have one.

      • pecan 3.14159265 says:

        Would it be, though? How many kids can form full sentences, have cell phones, and use social media? Why do you need an email address at the age of 8?

        • exconsumer says:

          Because they have a lot of positive educational and recreation uses AND they shouldn’t be full of people trying to commoditize our children.

          If your local playground was suddenly full of strangers pumping your kids for information, would you and your community just stand by and let them take over?

          I don’t feel any particular compulsion to allow people to deliberately create an environment of sketchiness.

        • thegreathal says:

          You are going to have some obscenely illiterate and sheltered kids if you really believe that.

      • TasteyCat says:

        When I was a kid, we had to go to this building called a post office.

  2. Blueskylaw says:

    Big corporations are following the drug kingpin’s mantra – hook em’ when they’re young.
    Any explanation to the contrary is utter bullsh*t!

  3. GrillinBurgers says:

    Some of these online games also prompt kids to answer questions and give details about their parents and siblings.
    I’ve noticed this a few times on facebook; my younger sister giving out details about me.

  4. Upthewazzu says:

    How young is too young, and who gets to decide? I had an AOL email address in 6th grade. That was back in 1994. We’ve come a long way since then.

    • Upthewazzu says:

      Dang it, this was supposed to be a reply to the first post by pecan pi.

    • Oh_No84 says:

      Me too, also in 1994. I was in 4th grade.

    • thisusedtobemoreinterestingandhelpful says:

      yeah in 1992 I had an AOL address at the age of 14 and was in control of all the AOL account settings (Parental Control? It was Kid control for those 5 hours we got a month)

  5. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    Blame everyone but the parents.

    • exconsumer says:

      Right. Banding together to form the Center for Digital Democracy and asking the FTC to use the law to stop marketers does not count. Each parent has to stand ALONE against millions of dollars worth of advertising and infrastructure. Otherwise, we are not free!

      • TheMansfieldMauler says:

        Each parent has to stand ALONE against millions of dollars worth of advertising and infrastructure.

        That’s a ridiculous assessment of the situation. No one has to…sob sniff…STAND ALONE!!!…against…$$$$$$MILLIONS$$$$$ spent by CORPORATE BADDIES!!!

        Each parent has to take responsibility to monitor, control and teach their own child about such things. It’s kind of similar to … oh, I don’t know … every other aspect of parenting, such as monitoring, controlling and teaching your child about [name any thing or activity].

        • exconsumer says:

          I’ll give the sarcasm a rest, but really, it’s a perfectly reasonable assessment.

          Here you’ve got a group of concerned parents who are asking the appropriate authorities to actually get people who are taking advantage of children to stop taking advantage of children . . . and this is somehow an abdication of responsibility to you. I just don’t agree. This sound like a perfectly reasonable and responsible reaction: something bad is happening, so find the instigator and get them to stop.

          If someone was leaving beartraps in a playground, I wouldn’t be content to just leave it there for someone else’s child to walk into. The right thing to do is dismantle the trap, find the person responsible, and keep them from doing it again.

  6. That guy. says:

    This isn’t a totally new issue…

  7. Megalomania says:

    as per usual, the notion that there may be some obligation towards parents to exercise discretion in what they allow their children to spend their time doing is completely missing. if you’re letting your children use a computer to do whatever they want and you decide that your biggest concern is that they might invite a friend to help find Ronald McDonald’s stolen hamburgers, you have some pretty weird priorities.

  8. Chuft-Captain says:

    Do I need to point out that this complaint is silly? “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 aware that they are being asked to generate advertising messages,”

    I mean…let’s be honest here. A large portion of “adults” don’t realize they are being asked to generate advertising messages, either.

  9. Oh_No84 says:


  10. exconsumer says:

    ‘What about parental responsibility?’

    If a neighbor asked for this information while your children were playing in the yard, and wouldn’t stop no matter how many times you asked, you’d call the cops immediately, and everyone would consider that perfectly responsible.

    But as long as the people asking are multiple strangers, and they have a lot of money, and they use this money to get this information from our children so they can target more children, that’s perfectly all right, and using the law to stop them is totally out of the question. Because Adam Smith. And Thomas Jefferson.

    • Megalomania says:

      if you can’t see why that analogy is completely off base, there’s little to no hope you’ll accept that fact, but what the hell, I’ll take a shot at it.

      the kids are visiting sites run by the corporations. that puts them squarely in the neighbor’s yard, not the parent’s. If your children keep wandering over to the neighbor’s property, then it sounds like you’re the one who’s going to be getting a visit from the cops.

      if your neighbor was in your yard asking your children questions, you would call the cops because that is trespassing. If your neighbor was standing on the sidewalk while your kids were in the yard and you called the cops, they would be pretty annoyed with you for wasting their time. They might be of a mind to think “it ain’t right” but talking to children in public is covered by the first amendment.

      if you allow your children to put themselves in situations where people and corporations can expose them to LEGAL things that you aren’t comfortable with, that is your problem. There are two steps to take:
      -keep your children on a tight leash until you trust they’re mature enough to make decisions about the issue on their own
      -make the issue public and shame the companies into stopping; if everyone really would consider it reasonable to prevent that kind of behavior, it will work.

      Advertising, for the record, is legal and do not even attempt to start some idiot discussion implying that it shouldn’t be, because god knows you can’t actually nail down what constitutes advertising in a meaningful way and that’s pretty much a perfect example of what a “slippery slope” is.

      What problem do you think that you can solve with a law here? Can you even concisely express what the problem is in a specific manner? Stop trying to put restrictions on everyone else because you are too lazy invest time in your children’s well being and too stupid to think of appropriate analogies.

      • exconsumer says:

        Well, no it wouldn’t just be my neighbor’s yard in general, it would be my neighbor’s yard that was specifically designed to attract mine and others children. Which is pretty creepy.

        With children it would be easy: you’re not allowed to advertise to them, ever. They are still learning, and we shouldn’t be creating an environment where they are endlessly taken advantage of.

        But I don’t imagine you’d ever go for that. You’d prefer a system where any lapse in parental responsibility can immediately be exploited to some end; a system that endlessly lays one trap after another, a nice little maze for you and your children to navigate. One false move and they got you, sorry you should be smarter next time. Maintaining this system is ‘parental responsibility’. Putting a stop to this system at the root, on the other hand; punishing the perpetrators; making it safer for all children, even those subject to inadequate parental protection, is ‘irresponsible’.

        Also, you should drill a hole in your canoe and bail as you go. If you sink, you deserve to drown. Patching the hole is irresponsible.

  11. Jawaka says:

    Why is exploitation of children so terrible but exploitation of adults so acceptable?

  12. The Beer Baron says:

    What? Stop the commercial exploitation of children? I say there is not enough commercial expolitation of children to-day! Every day I see more and more lazy children being sent to public schools and sponging off the taxpayers with their school lunch programs and school provided text-books and pencils! Back in my day children had to earn their keep! They were put to work on farms and in factories where their tiny hands could easily reach between gears and thresher blades to remove blockages! There was none of this molly-coddling! They learned important lessons, like the value of hard work and thrift, and how easily replaceable they were! They learned to be grateful for being allowed to come to work 18-hour shifts six days a week! After all, why does a child need to know how to read when he will spend his whole life pulling a lever on an assembly line?

    Bah! The lily-livering of this great republic continues unabated.