Senators urge FTC to look into shady ad practices in apps for kids

For us jaded adults, the long-running trend toward making apps and games free to download but stuffing them with paid options is just an annoyance or perhaps a logical progression of the business model. But kids haven’t developed our cynicism and wariness of manipulation — and they’re getting targeted nevertheless. Several Senators have asked the FTC to look into the ugly practice of monetizing kids’ apps.

“We write regarding the manipulative marketing practices by apps designed for children,” write Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in their letter (PDF). “Children should be able to entertain themselves and play without being bombarded by promotional messages, which young people may not be able to accurately assess and identify as marketing.”

The letter comes in the wake of a study released last month that found that some 9 out of 10 apps and games aimed at kids contained advertising. Educational, free, paid, didn’t matter — ads in some form or another were everywhere.

This should surprise exactly no one; it isn’t exactly a new problem. For one thing, we’ve been hearing about kids buying in-game currencies like crystals and Smurfberries for years — so often that app store providers have had to take serious action against it.

For another, kids today (like kids of yesterday) are already swimming in advertising and to some it may seem strange to single out a smartphone game when YouTube, traditional TV and other forms of media are rife with marketing laser-focused on the valuable minor market.

But of course just because we’ve encountered it before doesn’t mean we’ve solved it. And what the Senators are saying is that especially in the case of kids’ apps, these practices we have in many ways gotten used to may qualify as “unfair and deceptive” under the FTC’s definitions, and as such warrant investigation:

The report includes evidence of children’s games disguising advertisements and making advertisements integral to games themselves; games using characters to coerce children into making in-app purchases; children’s apps being marketed as ‘free,’ when those apps actually require additional spending in order to play; and children’s apps marketing themselves as educational, when they are in fact saturated with advertising.

Any action by the FTC, should it opt to look into this, would take quite a while to come to fruition. However, a public letter such as this is no doubt intended as a warning in itself to those employing shady tactics. Perhaps they’ll heed it before the FTC forces them to.