CARU Finds Tilting Point Media in Violation of COPPA and CARU’s Advertising and Privacy Guidelines; Company Agrees to Corrective Actions
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McLean, VA – September 7, 2022 – The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of BBB National Programs has found Tilting Point Media, LLC, owner and operator of the SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off 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. Upon receipt of CARU’s inquiry, Tilting Point proactively implemented changes to address each of CARU’s concerns regarding its advertising and privacy practices and continues to take other corrective actions to address the remaining violations.
The SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off app, featuring SpongeBob characters licensed by Viacom Media Networks, came to CARU’s attention through its routine monitoring of child-directed content. Given the app’s child-directed subject matter of SpongeBob Squarepants, intended for ages four and up, its use of animated characters, fun background music, and simplistic nature of the gameplay, as well as information provided by Tilting Point that the app has adult users with a nostalgic connection to SpongeBob Squarepants, CARU determined that the Tilting Point app was a “mixed audience” child-directed app and as such is subject to COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines.
Children’s Privacy Issues
Once inside the app, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency framework asks the user for permission to track the user’s activity “across other companies’ apps and websites” for the purpose of delivering personalized ads. Even after identifying as a child under age 13, there was nothing preventing a child from enabling this setting. In addition to these design and functional errors, CARU found that the age screen itself could be improved to be more neutral and therefore more likely to invite truthful age identification by children under age 13.
CARU determined that Tilting Point violated COPPA and CARU’s Privacy Guidelines by its failure to provide a neutral and effective age screen to limit users under the age of 13 to content that does not involve the collection, use, or disclosure of personal information, or to obtain verifiable parental consent before the collection, use or disclosure of any personal information from children.
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 SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off app served multiple automated 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 also found that players were induced to watch the ads with the promise of virtual currency rewards such as more “coins” and “free gems.”
CARU found these ads unduly interfered with gameplay, encouraged excessive ad viewing by children through deceptive door openers and other manipulative design techniques, 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 when they were selecting a button that would force them to watch or engage with an ad, and instead used small disclosures in tiny, inconspicuous text.
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 Tilting Point Media take the following corrective actions, some of which it proactively implemented early in our investigation:
- Update its age screening mechanism to allow users to freely enter the month and year of their birth and, use technical measures to prevent a child from entering a different age once they initially submit their age. Tilting Point voluntarily updated its age screen to direct users to two different versions of the app, a child version for users under age 13 and an adult version for those age 13 or older.
- Correct its data collection practices regarding third parties.
- If needed in the future, put in place a verifiable parental consent mechanism before any feature requiring it launches in the app.
- Take concrete steps to make the identifiers and disclosures for ads clear and conspicuous so that engagement with ads will not occur unknowingly.
- Direct its ad networks to make the exit functionality more prominent and obvious to users.
- Work with its ad networks to provide exit functionality to enable users to stop an ad via the first screen that appears when the ad launches.
- Identify and terminate the ad network serving unsafe ads for children and establish safeguards to ensure they do not return.
Tilting Point participated in and cooperated fully with CARU’s self-regulatory program. Tilting Point proactively implemented changes to address each of CARU’s concerns regarding its advertising and privacy practices.
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