A new Federal Trade Commission staff paper recommends that businesses, social media influencers and others who market or promote products online to children should avoid blurring advertising by clearly separating advertising and entertainment, educational, and other content to help limit potential harms to children. The paper further warns that for younger children in particular, disclosures are unlikely to be effective.
In the document, FTC staff detailed some of the main takeaways from an October 2022 workshop, Protecting Kids from Stealth Advertising in Digital Media, the agency held that examined how blurred advertising online and in digital spaces makes it difficult for children to distinguish between advertising and other content.
“We now live in a world where kids spend many hours a day online, often in immersive environments where advertising and content are deliberately difficult to distinguish,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The serious concerns highlighted through our workshop make clear that the best way to protect children from the harms of blurred advertising is to not blur advertising.”
Participants at the workshop and public comments discussed research showing that many young consumers do not have the skills or cognitive defenses to identify or sufficiently evaluate blurred advertising, potentially leading to deception, as well as physical, psychological, financial, privacy, and other harms. Workshop participants noted that children spend a significant amount of time on gaming platforms, video channels, and social media, where they encounter advertisements that blend into the surrounding content. For example, children may see marketing messages in an influencer’s video on social media, as they travel through a virtual environment, or while playing a mobile game.
Blurred advertising allows marketers to disguise advertising, and younger consumers may not be able to avoid it or evaluate it sufficiently given their focus on the content, the staff paper noted. In addition, children may be more likely to trust such messaging, particularly if it comes from a trusted source such as a social media influencer or an avatar they have befriended in a game. Other potential harms to kids from blurred advertising include promotion of harmful products and services such as tobacco or unhealthy foods; financial harms from advertising prompts that lead to accidental or emotional purchases without parental approval; and increased susceptibility to blurred advertising that is targeted to children based on information collected about them or their interests.
The workshop and comments made clear that there is no single approach that is sufficient to address the likelihood that children will be harmed or deceived from blurred advertising. Moreover, it is unreasonable to place the burden entirely on parents to constantly monitor their children’s online interactions. To the extent that entities engage in blurred advertising in spite of the inherent risks, staff recommends five practices to mitigate potential harm.
- Do not blur advertising. The best way to prevent harms stemming from blurred advertising is to not blur advertising. There should be a clear separation between kids’ entertainment and educational content and advertising, using formatting techniques and visual and verbal cues to signal to kids that they are about to see an ad.
- Provide prominent just-in-time disclosures. Such disclosures should be provided when the product is introduced and should be provided verbally and in writing and explain the commercial nature and intent of the message. Marketers, however, should not rely on disclosures alone.
- Create icons to flag advertising. Stakeholders should work together to create and use an easy-to-understand and easy-to-see icon to signal to kids that money or free things were provided to the content creator to advertise the product.
- Educate kids, parents, and teachers. All stakeholders should look for ways to educate kids, parents, and educators about how digital advertising works and help kids recognize and evaluate it wherever it appears. Education could also play an important role in helping promote and support the use of an icon to help kids identify ads.
- Platforms should consider policies, tools, and controls to address blurred advertising. Platforms should consider requiring content creators to self-identify content that includes advertising through policies and tools while also offering parental controls that allow parents to limit or block their children from seeing such content.
Importantly, none of these practices alone is necessarily sufficient, and companies that engage in blurred advertising can be held liable under the FTC Act if their conduct is deceptive or unfair to children.
The Commission voted 3-0 at an open Commission meeting to approve the staff perspective and the staff’s recommendations.
The lead FTC staffers on this matter are Michelle Rosenthal, Elizabeth Nach, and Michael Ostheimer from the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.