Children’s Advertising Review Unit Finds Outright Games in Violation of COPPA and CARU’s Advertising and Privacy Guidelines; Company Agrees to Corrective Actions
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McLean, VA – July 6, 2022 – The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of BBB National Programs has found Outright Games, owner and operator of the Bratz Total Fashion Makeover app, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and CARU’s Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Advertising and for Children’s Online Privacy Protection. Outright Games agreed to correct the violations.
The Bratz Makeover app, featuring Bratz characters licensed by MGA Entertainment, came to CARU’s attention through its routine monitoring of child-directed content. Given the app’s subject matter, its bright colors and visual content, the lively audio content, and gameplay consisting of simple matching puzzles, CARU determined that Outright Games’ Bratz Makeover app qualified as a “mixed audience” child-directed app and as such is subject to COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines.
Children’s Privacy Issues
Under COPPA and the CARU Privacy Guidelines, an operator is permitted to implement a neutral age screen for a mixed-audience service for the purpose of providing those users under age 13 with COPPA protections, including by either ensuring no personal information is collected from children or by obtaining verifiable parental consent prior to any collection. In addition, long-standing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) guidance states that operators should use technical means to prevent children from back-buttoning to enter a different age.
Outright Games implemented an initial age screen, followed by a "parent gate” that looked identical to the initial age screen. Outright Games informed CARU that it intended the age screen and parent gate to prevent the collection of personal information from children under 13, prevent children from making in-app purchases or using its social media functions. CARU determined, however, that the parent gate allowed users, who had identified themselves as under age 13 on the initial age screen, to make unlimited attempts to change their age in responding to this second gate without prior verifiable parental consent. Once a child entered the age of 13 or older in response to the parent gate, this reversed the intended protections of the initial age screen, allowing the child to make in-app purchases, interact with social media through the settings features, and potentially agree to be tracked for behavioral targeting.
Moreover, CARU found that the app’s two-part age-screening system was not neutral in practice. Given many children’s propensity to falsify their ages in order to not “miss out” on activities open to older users, CARU urges companies to go beyond the low bar of age-gating to incorporate privacy-by-design and systematic procedures of trust and safety from the ground up.
In addition, CARU determined that Outright Game’s privacy notices failed to comply with COPPA and CARU’s Privacy Guidelines due to unclear, incomplete, and at times contradictory language.
Children’s Advertising Issues
CARU’s Advertising Guidelines make clear that advertisers must not manipulate or deceive children. Conduct that would violate this provision includes the use of deceptive door openers and other tactics that either pressure or manipulate a child into engaging with ads, downloading and installing unnecessary apps, or making unintended purchases.
CARU found that the Bratz Makeover app served multiple ads, often appearing on completion of a game level and advertising other apps, and the ads could not be stopped or dismissed until users had downloaded the advertised app or watched the entire ad. These video ads often included interactive features that mimicked the App’s gameplay, encouraging players to engage with the ad. CARU found these ads excessively interfered with gameplay, required children to download and install unnecessary apps, and often provided unclear and inconspicuous methods for children to exit the ad and return to the game. While the CARU Advertising Guidelines do not require in-app ads to provide an exit method, they specify that where one is offered it must be clear and conspicuous.
Additionally, to prevent blurring the lines between advertising and non-advertising content, CARU’s Advertising Guidelines make clear that advertisers should take extra care to be transparent when advertising to children and that advertisements must be easily identifiable as advertising. The app failed to use simple, clear, and conspicuous language to let children know that by clicking certain buttons, they would be required to view an ad. In addition, the app failed to clearly and conspicuously disclose that products featured in the game were paid ads.
Last, CARU found that the app displayed some advertisements that were unsafe and inappropriate for children. CARU’s Advertising Guidelines make clear that advertisements should not include material or link to content that could unduly frighten or provoke anxiety in children, that portrays or encourages behavior inappropriate for children (e.g., violence or sexuality), or that is otherwise inappropriate for children.
CARU recommended that Outright Games take the following corrective actions:
- Provide a neutral and effective age-screen so the app doesn’t inadvertently collect, use or disclose, or share with third parties, personal information of users under age 13 without first obtaining verifiable parental consent.
- Provide clear and understandable notice of its children’s information collection and use practices.
- Cease excessive and manipulative means of ad serving.
- Provide clear and conspicuous disclosures of all ads.
- Ensure any methods offered by the app to exit ads are clear and conspicuous.
- Monitor and ensure advertisements are safe and appropriate for children.
Outright Games participated in CARU’s self-regulatory program and provided CARU with a detailed plan to remedy the concerns raised in the decision to comply with COPPA and CARU’s Advertising and Privacy Guidelines.
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