Unpacking Misleading Advertising Claims in the Children’s Space

Apr 20, 2021, 09:00 AM by Rashida Gordon, Analyst, Children’s Advertising Review Unit

Advertisements may seem simple on the surface, but certain aspects of the ad business, including advertising law, are complex. The role of monitoring ads directed to children is especially complex.

After all, think about how much information is packed into an ad that is only 15 or 30 seconds long. And then think about how all that information may – or may not – be understood by a child.

BBB National Programs’ Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) monitors the marketplace of child-directed media, with children defined as those under the age of 12, to determine if any of the content presented to children in TV, digital, or print advertisements is misleading, inappropriate, or false. 

It seems straightforward: advertisers are not allowed to lie in their advertisements. 

An advertiser is responsible for all reasonable interpretations of the claims it makes and not just the messages it intended to convey. What about when an ad unintentionally leaves a child with the wrong impression? What if the impact is greater than the intent? 

First, it is helpful to start by outlining the two basic types of claims: express and implied. 

Express claims are claims that are explicitly stated in an ad. For example, an ad for fingerpaint that states, “it’s washable,” makes an express claim that the paint is washable. Some claims may be virtually express, for example, if the fingerpaint ad showed a parent tossing a paint-covered shirt into the washer. Many implied claims, on the other hand, can be a bit trickier to recognize. 

Implied claims require the listener or viewer to make an inference between what is shown and what is likely to happen. For example, a child is playing a mobile game and after failing to pass a level several times, sees an in-game ad to unlock boosters. The implied claim here is that the purchase of boosters will help pass the level. 

CARU analyzes the overall or net impression of the entire ad, from the standpoint of ordinary children, considering among other things the express and implied claims, as well as any material omissions. A material omission occurs when an ad provides some information but leaves out an important fact or detail, making the ad misleading. It is important to note that even though it will likely be a parent or other adult who buys the product, the issue is whether the ad is misleading to the child audience, not to the adult purchaser.

By way of example, in advertising a game that can be used only after it is physically connected to a smart device, it is material that the smart device is not included. If the ad does not make that clear, seeing such an ad without the material disclosure could lead some children to believe that they do not need a smart device. Other examples of omission could be an ad for a battery-operated toy that does not disclose the fact that batteries are not included or an ad for a dollhouse that does not disclose that assembly is required. 

The CARU Guidelines outline the high standards that are set for advertisers directing their advertising to children and have been helping inform advertisers for more than a decade. With revised guidelines scheduled to be released this summer, companies should make sure they are familiar with CARU’s guidelines, especially in these common areas for CARU cases.


Puffery Claims

Puffery is a subjective statement, often exaggerated, about performance or quality that is not objectively measurable. For example, a juice company that refers to its apple juice as the “World’s Best Apple Juice” is aiming to highlight the superiority of its product, but the claim would generally be considered puffery because consumers would view the claim as exaggeration and would not reasonably expect that the company had tested the juice against all apple juices sold world-wide.

Because puffery is based on opinion and is understood to be exaggerated for the purpose of selling a product, most consumers know to not take statements of puffery as literal facts. Unfortunately, this is not the case with children. Simply put, children do not have the sophistication to detect and understand puffery.


Safety Claims

Sometimes an ad will show a child participating in an activity such as bike riding or skateboarding and the child participant is either missing some components of the required safety gear, not wearing properly fitting safety gear, or riding in an unsafe manner such as riding in the street. When such activities are displayed, it can give children the impression that the activity in question is safe and appropriate and can lead them to attempt to mimic the behavior despite it being unsafe.

Last year, CARU determined that a television advertisement to promote America’s Milk Companies produced by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board (MilkPEP) did not comply with CARU’s safety guidelines. As a result, CARU recommended that MilkPEP either discontinue the ad, which appeared during children’s programming, or modify it to include proper representation of safety gear. Instead of editing or discontinuing the ad, MilkPEP decided to adjust their media plan to target the audience to one that was over the age of 12.

Additionally, some ads show children engaging in water sports or activities that are inherently dangerous and require adult supervision, yet adult supervision is either not shown or is done in such a fleeting matter that it is inadequate. 


Nutritional Benefits 

Ads that claim a product is made with real fruit, is as nutritious as an actual fruit serving, or provides other health benefits and qualities such as being natural, made with less sugar, or providing extra energy, can be tricky and require consideration of the overall net impression, especially if puffery and other methods are used. 

For example, an ad that attempts to tout the nutritional benefits of a snack bar or fruit snacks by featuring lots of fruit and saying that it is made with real fruit or is equivalent to a quarter or whole serving size can convey the impression that the snack bar or fruit snack is as healthy as a piece of fresh fruit and therefore an adequate substitution or replacement. This is harmful because such ads could lead to erroneous beliefs about the healthfulness of food choices. 

On top of that, advertisers who want to promote the health and wellness benefits of their products can easily slide into trouble if they do not adequately support all objective messages, express and implied, made in their ads.  


Performance Claims

CARU’s Guidelines provide that a product’s performance and use should be demonstrated in a way that can be duplicated by the child for whom the product is intended. Ads that claim a product can make a person jump higher or run faster, or show a product flying or operating at great heights and distances, are often flagged because these claims result in children having misguided beliefs about what the product will do. 

False performance claims hurt consumers, the advertiser, and competitors. Consumers are harmed because they are left with a product that does not meet their expectations, causing dissatisfaction and mistrust. The advertiser is negatively affected because it will receive complaints and incur reputational harm for advertising a product that does not perform as expected. And honest competitors that play by the rules may lose sales to the false advertiser.


That’s a Wrap! 

Advertising is everywhere and generally most ads are informative and often entertaining. However, some ads require a second or a third look to make sure that the net impression of the ad does not promise more than the product delivers. If you are advertising to children, remember that your audience is not sophisticated and has limited cognitive skills. Ask yourself if the ad provides all the information a child would need to know or if it would mislead as to important points, such as whether batteries are included, assembly is required, what is included with purchase, or whether adult supervision is required. 

Companies can avoid having to reshoot an ad by catching these issues before they go to production. CARU offers a prescreen service that advises companies about advertising at all stages, from concept to storyboards and scripts to rough cuts, for all advertising platforms, to spot potential problems. For more information on prescreen services, email caruprescreen@bbbnp.org

CARU routinely monitors ads for compliance with our Guidelines. If you come across an ad that you feel is deceptive, email infocaru@bbbnp.org for further assistance. 

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