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Advertising to kids: another look in the digital age

Advertising to Kids Gets More Complicated

August 23rd, 2016   ||    by Todd Wasserman   ||    No Comments

Advertising to kids has been a hot-button topic for years. Critics point out that countries like Sweden ban all TV advertising aimed at kids under twelve years old. In fact, according to The New York Times, the US Federal Trade Commission considered a similar ban for kids under eight years old in the late 1970s. Proponents argue that if ads aren’t deceptive and don’t take advantage of children’s limited mental processing abilities, then they’re fair game.

To Watch or Not to Watch

Political pressure from groups like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood hasn’t stopped such advertising to kids but technology is offering a respite. Many parents have discovered that Netflix provides a safe haven from advertising and an ability to control the content their kids see. In July, YouTube expanded those options further, according to Wired, by offering an ad-free option for YouTube Kids for $10 a month. Additionally, Rubicon Project and SuperAwesome jointly introduced a kid-focused programmatic ad exchange called REX. However, the Statistic Brain Research Institute and the Toy Association reported, the average child in the US still watches 16,000 TV commercials per year, while the US toy business nets some $20 billion in annual revenues. What does all this mean for advertisers?

Freedom of Choice

Ever since the advent of TiVo in the early 2000s, advertising has been optional, at least for a portion of the public. Since then, many media companies have embraced a model in which consumers can escape ads for a subscription fee. The most prominent example is Netflix, which, according to Reuters, has amassed about 27 million US subscribers, none of whom ever see ads. Amazon Prime is also ad-free, as is HBO Now. Hulu—the primary rival to those services—introduced an ad-free version last year for $11.99/month, noted Deadline. Options like CBS’s $5.99-a-month All Access aren’t currently ad-free, but CBS CEO Les Moonves says he’d consider an ad-free premium-priced version, according to The Wrap.

In offering an ad-supported and ad-free version, such media companies are following the path of app makers, who do the same. Meanwhile, consumers are increasingly turning to ad blockers online and on mobile.

Looking at the broader landscape, it’s only natural that ad-free options would trickle down to children’s programming. In YouTube’s case, this offers the service a chance to deflect criticism that it helped target junk food advertising to kids. As critics note though, the ad-free version of YouTube Kids won’t prevent kids from being exposed to other forms of advertising on the network. If a child searches “cookies” on YouTube, for example, there’s a chance he or she will see a commercial, noted Tech Crunch.

Protecting Children

It’s clearly difficult to shield kids from ads in the digital age. Unless parents can completely control what their kids see, the next best hope is that REX will do what it purports to do. REX hopes to protect children by adhering to COPPA, a widely ignored federal guideline that forbids advertisers from using tracking or targeting software on kids under thirteen years old, reported Campaign Live.

For advocates who oppose advertising aimed at kids in principle, REX offers some comfort, but it doesn’t block purveyors of junk food and other controversial products. For advertisers, it provides some cover against criticism, while also implementing programmatic technology to ensure that ads are bought efficiently and get in front of the right demographic.

While the solution won’t be completely satisfying to anyone, it is a step towards providing a safer environment for kids. Still, parents who believe kids shouldn’t be exposed to any ads will need to take matters into their own hands.

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