Monday, May 24, 2021

Reading list: The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance: Unfair and Deceptive Advertising in Children’s Apps

 Mary Kate Fernandez,  The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance: Unfair and Deceptive Advertising in Children’s Apps, 66 Loy. L. Rev. 211 (2020)


The University of Michigan released a startling study (“the Michigan Study”) in October 2018 which unveiled that “manipulative and disruptive” advertisements are deceptively built into phone applications (“apps”) designed for children. The results of this study led members of the United States Senate and several public interest groups to petition the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) to investigate apps marketed specifically to children. The current federal administrative regime for regulating deceptive advertising targeted at children, however, falls far short of what is necessary to enable the FTC or any other federal agency to respond to the revelations in the Michigan Study with meaningful protections for children.

A striking passage on host selling:

This advertising practice, illegal during children’s television programming, is fundamentally unfair to child consumers. Yet, multiple apps designed for children heavily employ host-selling.

 For example, in PAW Patrol: Air and Sea Adventures, the commercial characters are not only the object of gameplay but also have interactions with the user. Characters make faces indicating feelings of disappointment when the user does not click on locked items that require payment. App characters also show disapproval when the player is unable to accomplish a certain mission because he did not make a required purchase. The Michigan Study stated that such tactics “could be characterized as social pressure or validation” and “may also lead children to feel an emotionally charged need to make purchases.” In Doctor Kids, the main character bursts into tears if the player does not make an inapp  purchase. In Barbie Magical Fashion, Barbie narrates and specifically encourages users to use “locked” items that require making a purchase. 

Most problematic of the host-selling examples was Strawberry Shortcake Puppy Palace. In this app, Strawberry Shortcake instructs users to choose a puppy to play with, but only one out of eight puppies can be played with for free. Every other puppy is locked. If the child selects a locked puppy, Strawberry Shortcake says, “Oops. To play with [name of puppy], you’ll need to get the puppy pack. Or you can unlock everything and get the best deal.” Throughout the game, Strawberry Shortcake has thought bubbles. Some tell the user that the puppy is sad, and the user should give the puppy what it wants. But oftentimes the item that the puppy “wants” is locked, and when the child selects it, Strawberry Shortcake tells the child to buy “the activities pack to keep the puppy happy.”

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