The advertising industry, moving to head off possible government regulation, today is issuing long-awaited guidelines for marketing to children on the Internet.
The voluntary rules come in response to mounting complaints that online marketers have been using questionable tactics to pitch products to children and gather information about them. The Federal Trade Commission plans to take up the issue of marketing to kids in June.
Critics have accused online marketers of sugar-coating advertising pitches with interactive games and video clips. They also say marketers are using contests and quizzes to do market research on kids without first receiving parental permission.
The guidelines, being issued by a unit of the Better Business Bureau, aren't likely to mollify critics.
Under the rules, marketers may continue to use characters such as Ronald McDonald to interact with kids and hawk products at the same Internet site. With regard to data collection, marketers are not required to obtain permission from parents but are instructed to make "reasonable efforts" to do so.
Critics want both practices banned. They argue children can't always distinguish between program content and advertising, and that they are too young to make judgments about personal privacy.
Shelley Pasnik, director of policy of the Washington-based Center for Media Education, said the guidelines are unlikely to force major changes in how big cereal, snack food and entertainment companies are using the Internet to reach children.
"We are pleased guidelines have been created, but our concern is they lack enforcement and don't go far enough to protect kids," she said. "We will be looking for much more from the FTC."
The Center for Media Education put the spotlight on digital marketing a year ago with a report on how marketers are using the unregulated medium of the Internet to build loyalty among children. It found that children as young as 4 were being asked to answer detailed questions about themselves before they could enter an Internet site to watch videos or play games.
The group, along with the National Parent-Teacher Assn. and others, called upon the FTC to develop rules for Internet ads aimed at kids. The FTC has jurisdiction over false or deceptive advertising, but has no specific rules for the Internet.
The industry guidelines are being issued by the Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, the unit of the Better Business Bureau that polices the fairness and appropriateness of ads directed at children. The guidelines were developed after months of discussion with representatives of consumer products firms and trade groups for the nation's largest advertising agencies and advertisers.
CARU director Elizabeth Lascoutx said a need to reach consensus prevented the unit from issuing stronger rules. "A self-regulatory program works only if the industry agrees to follow it," she said. "What we have done is start with a threshold with the expectation that the bar will be continually raised."
In developing the guidelines, CARU used magazines, rather than TV, as a model.
Lascoutx said the guidelines encourage advertisers to protect the privacy of children. Marketers gathering information about children should first remind children to get permission from a parent, and should tell children what the information will be used for. The rules call on marketers to advise children to use a pseudonym for activities that can be seen by other visitors to the site.
Lascoutx said the rules encourage marketers to work with technological developments that protect privacy.