How advertisers are reaching kids. It's not on TV.

Photo via iStock Photo via iStock

The federal government, having observed shameless efforts by mass-media marketers to use children to separate parents from their money, has had to step in repeatedly over the past 40-plus years with laws and regulations to stop this kind of exploitation. That was the subject of the previous "TV Eye" column.

Today, though, regulatory bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission seem nearly powerless when up against the online advertising juggernaut—even though polite exploiters wouldn't use as crass a phrase as "advertising."

Angela Campbell, an attorney with the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, not only related the sad history of ads targeted at children in her January scholarly paper, "Rethinking Children's Advertising Policies for the Digital Age," she spelled out today's dangers as well.

Congress saw a need for a digital hands-off option in 1998 with the Children's Online Privacy  Protection Act. Sens. Richard Bryan, D-Nevada, and John McCain,. R-Arizona, said then that the law was necessary to prevent marketers from targeting and exploiting children. "Unfortunately, the same marvelous advances in computer and telecommunication technology that allow our children to reach out  to new resources of knowledge and cultural experiences are also leaving them unwittingly vulnerable to exploitation and harm by deceptive marketers," they said.

But FTC enforcement, as Campbell noted, has been halting at best. Meanwhile, computer technology has grown so sophisticated that a user's online habits can be readily tracked—including the habits of kids.

"Online ad networks use a central server to deliver advertisements to consumers, which enables targeting, tracking, and reporting consumers' impressions in ways not possible with analog media alternatives," Campbell said. "When children watch videos on YouTube, a great deal of information is collected from and about them." She added, "As Time magazine put it, 'YouTube pretty much owns kids' eyeballs at this point.'"

"Not only is marketing more personalized, but it is increasingly integrated into content," Campbell said. "The distinction between content and marketing has become even more blurred on the Internet, where much of the advertising looks similar to news clips or independent product reviews, a practice referred to as 'native advertising.'" Indeed, a Common Sense Media survey of kids ages 10-18 issued on March 8 showed that kids ages 10-12 prefer YouTube over Facebook as their online news source.

"Not only is marketing more personalized, but it is increasingly integrated into content," Campbell said.

Campbell pointed to a recent survey of youth ages 13-17 to rank their favorite celebrities from a list of 20 names. Two names are easily recognizable: pop music stars Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. The others in their top 10 were YouTube stars.

One "YouTuber"—in the parlance of their fans—is EvanTube. "Evan's father started making and posting videos of Evan opening, playing with and talking about toys and other products when Evan was 8 years old," Campbell said. "Now he has four YouTube channels and reportedly makes millions of dollars."

YouTube, sensing the ability to make more money, put together a "partners program allowing creators to monetize content on YouTube by letting Google stream advertisements in exchange for a cut of the ad dollars.

In some quarters, it's nice that EvanTube is now a brand. But traditional brands have caught on. "The growth in the number of brand channels and brand videos has been remarkable," Campbell said. "According to video advertising technology company Pixability, by 2013, all but one of the top 100 global brands had a YouTube channel, and 56 had 10 or more. By 2015, the top 100 brands collectively had 2,400 brand channels, 611,000 branded videos, and 40 billion channel views."

The year 2015 also saw the debut of the YouTube Kids app for the youngest possible audiences, often known simply as YTK. "Google (YouTube's owner) designed YTK specifically for children ages 5 and under," according to Campbell. "In Google Play and the App Store, Google describes the app as 'designed for curious little minds. This is a delightfully simple -- and free! -- app, where kids can discover videos, channels and playlists they love."

Who supplies the video content? YouTube celebrities, also known as influencers. "Many of the influencer videos feature candy and snack foods," Campbell noted. "For example, children can learn to make a Nutella milkshake, Play-Doh 'Twizzlers,' and lip gloss from a Snickers bar. Entire channels are devoted to candy reviews, such as 'babyteeth4-Kid Candy Review.'"

Ads eventually came to YTK. YouTube put a policy into place to regulate the ads, which is routinely flouted. The result, Campbell said, is that "young children are exposed to a great deal of marketing at odds with long-standing policies regarding marketing to children."

Our privacy, and that of our children, seems to be going down the YouTube.

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