Marketers Challenged On Youth Safeguards

The ad industry last week defended existing safeguards after the Center for Digital Democracy called for a moratorium on digital-marketing techniques that could harm young Web surfers.

“There’s already a structure to protect all adults and children alike, because the Federal Trade Commission has authority over false or deceptive or unfair acts or practices,” said Dan Jaffe, evp for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers.

The CDD sent a letter to the FTC last Tuesday urging the organization to review and analyze the interactive-advertising technologies and tactics used by companies to target children, tweens and teens. The advocacy group also pushed for online advertisers to suspend all practices that could harm youths until independent research suggests otherwise.

The FTC said it received the letter and would evaluate it. The ANA, Web advertisers and publishers cited the the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, parental blocking software and privacy policies as adequate protection for young consumers.

But CDD executive director Jeffrey Chester argued that “aggressive marketing practices” have far outstripped COPPA’s coverage. “There’s never been a time in our society where the most powerful forces of digital media and marketing and programming are focused on our nation’s youth,” said Chester. “There’s unprecedented amounts of data collection and targeting going on. Sophisticated databases are [storing] all kinds of personal information about the child.”

Jaffe said targeting is not the kind of “Big Brother bad behavior” that the CDD and other groups make it out to be. “If you can’t target, what are you going to have? You’re going to have baby-diaper ads being advertised to seniors, lawn furniture to people who live in apartments,” he said.

Online publishers and advertisers pointed out their adherence to youth-marketing guidelines issued by the FTC and the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, an ad-industry self-regulation program.

“It is MSN’s practice to not collect personal identifiable information, age or demographic information on visitors to the MSN Kids sites who are under the age of 18,” said Karen Redetzki, a project manager at the Microsoft Internet property.

From time to time, CARU steps in when a site falls out of COPPA compliance. This spring, for instance, the group worked with Interstate Bakeries Corp. to modify its Planet Twinkie Web site after finding that children under 13 could submit personally identifiable information, such as their full name and phone number, without parental consent.

In addition to Web marketing, the CDD said the FTC should explore youth-targeted advertising on videogames and digital television—a move Jaffe called “premature.”

“It’s like trying to regulate aviation as the Wright Brothers took off at Kitty Hawk,” Jaffe said. “Let’s not regulate our imaginations; let’s regulate reality.”