Groups Ask FTC to Investigate Viral Marketing Aimed at Kids

Complaints name McDonald's, Viacom, Turner, General Mills, SubwayKids

Six child-targeted websites asking young visitors to "tell a friend" or "refer a friend" may have run afoul of children's online privacy laws. The Center for Digital Democracy, joined by 13 other children's health, privacy and consumer advocacy organizations, filed five separate complaints Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission against the sites, calling on the agency to investigate McDonald's; General Mills' and; Doctor's Associates'; Viacom's; and Turner Broadcasting's for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act.

On the sites, the companies ask children who are participating in brand-related games or activities to share their experience with friends by providing their email addresses. Those friends are then sent a personalized online appeal. McDonald's website for Happy Meals goes a step further, inviting children to make a music video by uploading their pictures and encouraging them to share the video with up to four friends, who then receive an email from McDonald's: "You've been tagged for fun by a friend! Check it out! It's a Star in Video at the McDonald's Happy Meal Website."

The practice turns the children, arguably less savvy about viral marketing than teens and adults, into mini-ad messengers for the brand.

"This is the kind of thing you see from con artists, not the Fortune 500 elite," said Jeff Chester, the CDD's executive director.

In the complaints, the groups charge that not only are the "tell a friend" campaigns unfair and deceptive, but they circumvent Coppa requirements that operators of a website directed to children under 13 may not collect personal information from children without parental permission.

"To ask children to give out other children's personal information is outrageous and violates the intent of Coppa," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University who helped push for the passage of Coppa in 1998. "It's disguised as communications, fun and entertainment, but it's all about promoting a commercial message. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for the industry. I am surprised the [Federal Trade Commission] hasn't cracked down on this."

McDonald's did not return calls for comment. Viacom spokesperson David Bittler said the company could not comment because it hadn't received the complaint.

A Turner Broadcasting spokesperson said Cartoon Network "takes its compliance with Coppa very seriously. We will review any allegations closely."

Determining if the sites are not in compliance could hinge on whether the companies were actually collecting and recording emails or just providing a service to their young visitors. A person familiar with Nick's online practices explained that Nick did not store or record email addresses for its "send to a friend" feature.

The other organizations that joined with CDD in filing the complaints are the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, Center for Media Justice, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Children Now, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, ChangeLab Solutions, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, Public Health Advocacy Institute and the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale.

The FTC is currently considering updates to the Coppa rules.

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