The Evolution of CARU: Laying the Foundation in the 70s and 80s

May 9, 2024 by The Children's Advertising Review Unit

For the last 50 years, companies marketing to children have held each other to a high ethical standard. In response to threatened regulation of advertising to children, in 1974, the advertising industry and the then-Council of Better Business Bureaus established the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) as the U.S. mechanism of independent self-regulation for protecting children under age 12 from deceptive or inappropriate advertising.

The context for advertising industry self-regulation had been set three years earlier, in 1970, with the creation of the National Advertising Division, helping address the pressures and criticisms of the consumer movement about misleading advertising that had mounted in the previous decade. Many of the same critics were advocating for strict regulation of, if not an outright ban on, advertising to children. Part and parcel of these efforts, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) established a process to draft a code governing advertising directed to children.  

In response, recognizing the need for a self-regulatory advertising unit focused specifically on the special needs of young children, CARU was established, along with its Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Advertising to Children. The FTC welcomed this specialization, and the system has stood the test of time and technological innovation. 

From its inception, CARU has helped to police the marketplace by bringing challenges against advertising practices that do not comply with CARU’s Advertising Guidelines, widely recognized industry standards to assure that advertising directed to children is not deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate for its intended audience. In the 1990s when online advertising emerged, CARU issued Privacy Guidelines to help ensure that when children’s data is collected online, it is done so responsibly. 

Spanning decades, CARU’s cases reflect the evolution of the children’s advertising and marketing space. 

From early disclosure challenges on child-directed television, to the rise of internet-based cases, to sophisticated data privacy cases, CARU has evolved its Guidelines to keep pace with technological advancements.

 

CARU’s Early Cases

In the 1970s, television and children’s magazines were the dominant mode of advertising to children. Several of CARU’s earliest cases dealt with a lack of clear and conspicuous disclosure of important information in child-directed ads. Disclosures such as “batteries not included” – now the norm – were absent until CARU began bringing actions against ads that misled children about the performance or characteristics of products.

In CARU Case #1483, REMCO TOYS Inc. (January 1979), comic book advertising for the Spider-Man doll was headlined: “Now...the Amazing Energized Spider-Man.” The advertising also mentioned another doll, the Energized Green Goblin, but there was no indication on how the action figures were “energized.”

Spoiler alert: It was batteries, which needed to be purchased separately.

REMCO Toys, CARU Case #1483 

CARU’s Guidelines addressed the issue of products sold separately or unassembled: “The advertisement should clearly establish what is included in the original purchase of a product. When items are to be purchased separately, the fact should be disclosed in a way that is clear to the child audience primarily addressed. Advertising for all products sold unassembled should indicate that assembly is required. If any other product is essential in order to use the advertised product--such as batteries--this should be disclosed.” 

Here are some other notable cases from CARU’s early days:

May 1985 (CARU Case #2286): Movie promotion for He-Man and She-Ra in The Secret of the Sword in the children’s magazine, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

  • CARU’s Guideline: In print media primarily designed for children, a character or personality associated with the editorial content of a publication should not be used to promote products, premiums, or services in the same publication.
HeMan and SheRa, CARU Case #2286 

October 1988 (CARU Case #2638): TV commercial featuring Star Trek action figures where the toy moves its arms independently, and its “phaser weapon” appears as strong as a lightning bolt

  • CARU’s Guideline: Copy, sound, and visual presentations should not mislead children about product or performance characteristics. Such characteristics may include, but are not limited to, size, speed, and method of operation.

 

July 1989 (CARU Case #2715): TV commercial for Children for Children Dolls created sales pressure to sell dolls and contribute to charity (“poor children”)

  • CARU’s Guideline: Advertisers should always take into account the level of knowledge, sophistication, and maturity of the audience to which their message is primarily directed. Younger children have a limited capability for evaluating the credibility of what they watch. Advertisers, therefore, have a special responsibility to protect children from their own susceptibilities.

 

Interested in diving deeper into CARU’s cases? Read summaries of all CARU cases in the Case Decision library. To access the full case decisions for all cases, including CARU’s earliest cases, subscribe to the Online Archive

Though the internet was born in the 80s, it was in the 90s when the internet truly took off and the children’s space started to grapple with a new technology to monitor. In 1996, CARU updated its Advertising Guidelines to include provisions addressing children’s online privacy. Those privacy guidelines formed the foundation of a federal law enacted in 1998 called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). 

Read our next blog on CARU’s cases and impact in the 90s and 00s, addressing privacy and the internet in the children’s space.

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