Last week, two advocacy groups renewed their complaints against YouTube Kids, claiming that a “limited but systematic search” turned up hundreds of promotions for foods that ought not to be advertised to children under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. I don’t question that there are still advertisements to be found on YouTube Kids, and I don’t question the inherent unfairness of “native advertising” to children. I do have doubts about the methodology and claims of the activists’ study.
YouTube Kids is a response to many things: Children’s distaste for “walled gardens,” since they have interests at least as diverse as adults’; parents’ desire for safe spaces for their kids; and Google’s interest in not having to sanitize its adult-oriented platform (that we know young people love).
Television is changing in ways we couldn’t have anticipated just a few years ago, and there’s a lot still being figured out. Activists who cut their teeth counting commercial minutes on limited, programmed and linear channels need to become smart about evolving media. They may want streaming media to be more like traditional “TV” as it would be easier to regulate. But “pull” is entirely different from “push,” in its content and genres, its use patterns, even its purpose.
This complaint doesn’t reflect understanding of how real kids use YouTube, and so I believe it overstates exposure to commercial content. It’s hard to envision many kids under six searching on “Snickers commercial.” Moreover, how do you measure commercial exposure on a platform where children can always click out of any video that doesn’t engage them, and where their time may be consumed with feature-length videos, 11-minute TV episodes, or stories that last less than a minute?
The study turned up mostly 94% “commercials that previously aired on television” and “product placements and endorsements,” (the other 6% were “videos created by the companies about their brands and products”). I replicated some of these searches and discovered that most commercials are several years old. “Product placements” were almost all maker shows (how to bake homemade Pop-Tarts – one of the brands studied – or make licorice with PlayDoh), satires or pranks (replacing Pop-Tart fillings with Vegemite or “Americans taste British McDonald’s”), and “challenges” like blind taste tests. (Two notes: some of the study searches now lead to a “search for something else” message; and YouTube Kids did serve up two pre-roll ads, one for another YTK series and one for Common Sense Media.)
There are valid questions about disclosure of paid product placements, particularly within a kid-specific app. The study, however, doesn’t ask these questions; it makes assumptions. “While we lack the ability to determine for certain that the product placements and endorsements were paid for or actively sought out by the CFBAI members, the high production values and the large number of such videos featuring the same hosts, suggest that they were not the result of individuals acting on their own without any incentives from the brands.”
High production values and high volume of postings: These are precisely what YouTube encourages from producers for the platform. The most widely-followed YouTubers put up content daily, often on a predictable schedule so fans know when to “tune in.” As for quality, YouTube Spaces in major world cities encourage producers – whether they have one subscriber or a million – to hang out and “collab” to improve their production and storytelling skills. To assume that being good and prolific means being corporate is to totally misunderstand the platform.
This is especially odd because at least one of the complaining organizations fights for wider voices in media. YouTube should be the platform they’ve been seeking, but democracy is messy and takes time, experimentation and reflection to get in balance. The great thing about digital media is that launch is the starting point and not the finish, so a platform like YTK can evolve continually.
YouTube and YouTube Kids aren’t public service media; they’re there to make a profit for Google. They do fulfill some of the ideals of PSM, thought, in that anyone can place videos on the platform, and they’re used extensively by advocacy groups, political campaigns, NGOs and communities, as well as corporations.
If the solution to speech you don’t like is more speech, where are the activist groups’ efforts to encourage more public service children’s media, on YouTube and elsewhere? This has long been my annoyance with current-day children’s media pressure groups – they never say what they do want. I’ll assume they want children to have the same wide range of entertainment and learning options that adults expect. What’s missing, however, is any positive recommendation for how to fund quality content. (One reason Peggy Charren got respect from industry was that, as sharply as she often called them out, she also knew when to say something was “nifty,” and she was a tireless advocate for public broadcasting.)
No funding model is perfect; each has compromises. Advertising has proven most durable across platforms, and so is embedded in families’ lives. Activist groups may find parents simply don’t share their concern. A new survey with mothers of six- to 12-year-olds found that four of their top ten favorite family-friendly brands (out of almost 300 choices) are foods that would fall under CFBAI limitations – Reese’s, Oreo, Hershey’s and M&Ms.
In fact, there’s an ongoing real-world test of how parents feel about advertising to children. With ever-diversifying entertainment options – most either ad-supported or subscription based, families will vote with their wallets between monthly fees and seeing ads. Once a family has paid for Netflix (for the whole family) and Amazon Prime (for free shipping with video as a bonus), in addition to cable or satellite (still for most families), will they have “subscription fatigue”? If YouTube Kids adds a “Red” paid version we’ll find out fast. With over 10 million downloads of YouTube Kids in just nine months, we may have an indication already. (To be fair, we don’t have data on how long or often families use the downloaded app.)
Clearly, there are conversations to be had among YouTube, CFBAI and its members, to ensure that signatories understand their obligations on emerging platforms. YouTube Kids is a platform, not a network, though, and the great thing about a platform is that there’s room for many viewpoints. Still, if you start carving away the edges, contributors start tumbling off and the perspective gets much more narrow.