When Organizations Market To Children, They Should Do So Responsibly

Nov 10, 2021 by Eric D. Reicin, President & CEO, BBB National Programs

Ever since Buffalo Bob asked, "Say kids, what time is it?" and the studio audience answered, "It's Howdy Doody Time!" children’s television programs have been used as a way to market products to children. 

Of course, if you have no idea what I am talking about, then depending upon your age, think about Thomas the Tank Engine, My Little Pony, Care Bears, He-Man, and the Masters of the Universe or Transformers, to name a few.

Given what a powerful group of consumers children are, it is no surprise that advertisers have always aspired to reach them.

For decades of traditional television, parental or guardian oversight was essentially built into any purchase process, whether for breakfast cereals or the latest toy. But the dynamic digital landscape has built new pathways to purchasing decisions that look very different and often do not require support from a parent or guardian.

Today, when children and teens browse the internet, use social media, play games, use mobile apps or even play with web-connected smart toys, they are also consuming targeted marketing messages. These messages look different than they did on Saturday morning cartoons. Whether they are banner ads and pop-ups in apps, or innovative digital billboards or product placements that are seamlessly woven and optimized into gaming, children and teens are targets for marketing messages. 

This generation of digital natives might be more comfortable navigating the plethora of gaming and content platforms that exist today, but they face the same cognitive limitations — and vulnerabilities — that children always have. The gap between a child’s needs online and the safeguards in place to protect them in digital spaces has grown to the point where big players like Google and Facebook are making more of an effort to address these gaps.  

At my organization, BBB National Programs, we have been pleased to see these critical steps being taken and have appreciated the dialogue that has resulted. For example, in a recent blog post, Google made it clear how difficult it can be to determine the accurate age of a user while still respecting their privacy. It stated that “knowing the accurate age of our users across multiple products and surfaces, while at the same time respecting their privacy and ensuring that our services remain accessible, is a complex challenge. It will require input from regulators, lawmakers, industry bodies, technology providers, and others to address it — and to ensure that we all build a safer internet for kids.”  

This acknowledgment from Google is something that leaders of our industry should recognize and actively monitor. Our Children’s Advertising Review Unit, which recently released revised advertising guidelines that go into effect on January 1, 2022, often advises leaders that you cannot treat a 16-year-old the same way you would treat a 6-year-old in an online environment. As a result, certain privacy safeguards and protections are required when you are unsure of a user’s actual age.  

Google also announced its move to block targeted advertising and turn off location history for anyone under 18 years old, taking similar action on YouTube to improve disclosures on videos that are "made for kids." In a YouTube blog post, the company stated that, "Developed in collaboration with child development experts, the disclosures appear in easy-to-understand text and link to a kid-friendly animated video, which provides additional information on paid product placements.” 

Similarly, Facebook announced it is stopping advertisers from marketing to those under 18 based on their interests. Additionally, teen accounts will default to higher privacy settings, a useful step in providing a more privacy-protected environment for teens. 

This is all positive, especially since it is likely to put pressure on any business or nonprofit marketing or targeting content to children or teens to act as well.  

Indeed, it is not just Google and Facebook that have a responsibility to take proactive measures to create a safer and more straightforward environment for children and teens. All businesses and nonprofits with youth-directed products or services should focus on being accountable to this audience. Here are some tips on what businesses and nonprofit organizations can do:

  • Embrace your audience. We know that traditional age-gating techniques are frequently ineffective, but that does not mean a company cannot take responsibility for whom it is targeting in its marketing. Assume you are reaching your intended youthful audience and take protective measures accordingly.  
  • Put yourself in their shoes. Today’s consumers — which certainly includes children and teens — want authenticity. When selling something, consider doing it directly. Avoid misleading consumers into viewing your ads, much less drawing consumers into a purchasing decision they did not intend to make.
  • Know the laws. In the children’s space, there are strict guidelines for how to market to children under 13, as well as strict rules for how to collect, manage and distribute their digital data. Lean on the support of your legal team, who hopefully are already familiar with these laws and guidelines, or organizations responsible for monitoring the marketplace for compliance.  


Beyond these baselines, organizations can go a step further by paving the way for new standards that reflect the evolving ways that families and children interact with technology. As new communities and spaces evolve for children online, companies can be at the forefront of how child-directed content advertising and privacy regulations are applied to new technologies.  

It is becoming increasingly important for business and nonprofit leaders to not only comply with relevant regulations but also to ensure that they are making choices that enhance trust in the marketplace among consumers of all ages. Turning to respected systems of independent industry self-regulation can help to ensure that when businesses market to children, they do so responsibly. 

Originally published on Forbes.

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