FTC complaint alleges Google, Disney & others profit from deceptive ads aimed at kids

Consumer watchdog groups, CCFC, Public Citizen, and the Center for Digital Democracy, are again targeting the deceptive advertising practices of “influencer marketing” in a new complaint filed with the FTC on Friday. The groups specifically call out Google’s YouTube and YouTube Kids, Disney-owned Maker Studios, Dreamworks’ AwesomenessTV and others, as being involved in this damaging practice.

“Influencer marketing,” by way of background, is referencing the way popular content creators and video stars will distribute ads and other commercial material, without properly disclosing that they’re being compensated for doing so.

In particular, the consumer watchdog organizations complain that these sorts of ads are pushing toys, junk food and other products toward kids, who can’t yet tell the difference between paid advertising and content.

By law, existing FTC regulations require that advertisements are disclosed. But the groups say that many influencers fail to make the proper disclosures, leading kids to pester parents for costly goods and unhealthy foods.

The complaint alleges that several MCNs (multi-channel networks), including Collab Creators, Wild Brain, Maker Studios and AwesomenessTV, all distribute this sort of content across social media and YouTube. It even names some of the more popular “influencer” YouTube channels where this content can today be found, like EvanTubeHD, Baby Ariel, Meghan McCarthy, the Eh Bee Family, and Bratayley.


These channels each have millions of subscribers, which means they have similar reach as many kids’ TV programs, where rules are much stricter than online.

In one example, Baby Ariel and her family sample Jelly Belly jelly beans as part of a game; In another, an EvanTubeHD video shows an unboxing of a new Lego Police Patrol Boat. While this content obviously appeals to kids, the relationship between the influencer and advertiser is not disclosed. Meanwhile, the platforms where these videos are found – like YouTube and YouTube Kids, for example – financially benefit from the videos’ popularity, thanks to ad revenues.


“Parents have no idea that the adorable ‘friends’ their children like to watch unbox toys are really stealth marketers,” CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin said in statement, calling on the FTC to clamp down on this marketing practice.


This is not the first time these groups have gone after online influencers for the same problem. In prior FTC complaints, the groups have complained about these same deceptive ads on YouTube and YouTube Kids. In particular, the YouTube Kids app is being marketed to children 5 and under, which makes this type of advertising especially egregious.

And the groups have filed FTC complaints related to the hidden junk food ads on YouTube Kids – which means the food and drink advertisers are violating their own self-regulatory pledges they made as members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).

There’s nothing really new in terms of the nature of the complaint this time around. Instead, the new complaint represents the groups’ now-expanded focus beyond YouTube and its properties to go after the MCNs more directly.

Golin says the FTC has not yet ruled on any of the groups’ prior complaints.