The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), an organization comprised of consumer protection authorities from over 65 countries, recently shared a white paper on best practices for marketing to children online. Companies who actively marketing to children online – video game publishers, learning apps, toys and other games, candy and food companies, etc. – should review the entire paper. Advertisers should already know that they have an obligation not to make false or misleading statements to consumers. In its paper, ICPEN noted that children are more likely to be targeted by online advertising than, for example, TV advertising, and identified four key principles for marketing online to children:

  1. Advertisers should make clear what is and is not marketing;
  2. Advertisers should not use marketing techniques that exploit children’s naivety, credulity, or lack of commercial knowledge;
  3. Advertisers should not engage in the deceptive or harmful collection and use of children’s data; and
  4. Advertisers should not market inappropriate products or services to children.

Let’s break down how advertisers should address each of these principles.

Make Clear What is and is not Marketing

ICPEN reminds advertisers that children’s lack of experience makes it “more difficult for them to differentiate between what is an ad and what is not.” Therefore, it may be more difficult for advertisers to make sure that children understand that they are being marketed-to. Nevertheless, it is important that advertisers be transparent with children about the use of marketing.

Native advertising is one form of advertising whose format endeavors to blend into the non-advertising content. As ICPEN puts it, with native advertising it may not be obvious “what is an ad and what is not.” Of course, with children, the risk is even greater that a child will not perceive a native advertisement as such.

Influencer marketing is similar to native advertising in that it blends into non-advertising content. Influencer marketing is often used to market video games and toys to children, for example. As with native advertising, influencer marketing can be difficult for children to identify when an influencer’s post is an advertisement.

ICPEN identified other common forms of advertising where the benefit to the marketing is in the blurring of lines between commercial and non-commercial content. In all of these forms, children are less likely to understand the differences. Therefore, for these and all forms of marketing, when directing an ad toward children, advertisers should make a concerted effort to make it clear to the children when an ad is an ad.

Do Not Exploit the Naivete of Children

ICPEN points out that the barriers between seeing an advertisement and making a purchase are significantly reduced online as opposed to at a store, and that it is easier for a child to make purchase online without the knowledge of an adult. Because of these issues, it is important for advertisers not to try to manipulate children with the format of the advertisement.

ICPEN raised concerns with certain common in-game monetization mechanics. For example, in-game purchases are a common monetization mechanic to online and mobile games. Children who have committed time and money to a game may feel pressured to make in-game purchases to help them play the game. Loot boxes are another form of in-game monetization that has recently been heavily scrutinized, in part out of concern that loot boxes may be gambling or that it may be difficult for players (including children) to keep track of how much they have spent on loot boxes. ICPEN points our that sound, color, and actions can amplify the feeling of reward when a box is opened.

Regardless of the marketing approach, advertisers should avoid exploiting a child’s lack of experience when marketing to children.

Children’s Data

Any advertiser collecting children’s data should ensure that their privacy practices comply with applicable privacy laws. In addition to those privacy issues, there are consumer protection issues that ICPEN highlights in its papers. In particular, children are not likely to understand that data is monetized in the online marketing world. Advertisers should remember the necessity of avoiding unfair and deceptive practices, which can include unfair and deceptive data collection practices.

Inappropriate Products

It should be obvious, but ICPEN reminds readers that when they are online children have “direct and easy access” to a wide variety of products and services, not all of which are suitable for children. ICPEN recommends that advertisers should not market unsuitable products and services to children and should make sure that those ads are not readily accessible to children. To help ensure that children do not have access to inappropriate products and services, advertisers should pay attention to the selection of the media placement (such as, noting the age of an influencer’s followers), style of presentation, and content.

Conclusion

There is no reason why an advertiser cannot work with an influencer to market to children or monetize a mobile game with an in-app purchase, for example. But, advertisers should first remember that they should not falsely or misleadingly advertiser to their consumers, and should not engage in unfair or deceptive practices. Advertisers should, also, remember that if the target audience is children, what is appropriate for that audience may be different than what is appropriate for an older audience. If questions arise as to whether a particular advertisement or monetization mechanic in a game are problematic, advertisers should work with counsel to resolve the issues because the analysis is very fact-specific.