Consumer News

Walmart’s Undisclosed Advergame on Roblox Targets Children

TINA.org, together with other consumer groups, calls for immediate audit of Walmart Universe of Play.

Consumer News

Walmart’s Undisclosed Advergame on Roblox Targets Children

When Walmart entered the metaverse last fall with the launch of two kid-friendly Roblox experiences – Walmart Land and Walmart Universe of Play – its chief U.S. marketing officer said the move was aimed at increasing “brand favorability with younger audiences” and “reaching our customers in unexpected ways.”

Unexpected ways indeed: Walmart does not adequately disclose that either immersive experience is actually an ad disguised as a game.

Last April, TINA.org filed a complaint with the FTC regarding deceptive stealth advertising in the Roblox metaverse in the form of undisclosed advergames directed at children, many of whom, TINA.org noted, are unable to recognize the promotional nature and persuasive intent of such marketing material. (Following the complaint, Roblox quietly removed its ban on ads directed at kids, which wasn’t being enforced anyway.)

But none of the undisclosed advergames TINA.org identified as part of its 2022 investigation – Nikeland, Vans World and an advergame inspired by the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” just to name a few – had what Walmart Universe of Play has: the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) COPPA Safe Harbor Program seal.

When CARU, a self-regulatory group that is part of BBB National Programs, announced in December that Walmart was joining its COPPA Safe Harbor Program, it said the seal represents more than compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.

Companies who participate in CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor Program also comply with CARU’s Advertising Guidelines – a set of standards for advertising that help ensure advertising directed to children is not deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate.

Yet not only is Walmart violating CARU Advertising Guidelines by not clearly and conspicuously disclosing that Universe of Play is an advergame in a manner that is easily understood by its target audience of young children, it’s also defying FTC law.

On Monday, TINA.org, together with consumer advocacy groups Fairplay, Center for Digital Democracy and the National Association of Consumer Advocates, sent a letter to CARU urging it to immediately audit Walmart Universe of Play and take appropriate action.

The game is named after Walmart’s Universe of Play toy catalog and features virtual products and characters from Paw Patrol, Jurassic World, L.O.L. Surprise! and more. In the game, young kids are encouraged to “collect the hottest toys” and make a “wish list” of toys that can then be purchased at Walmart. The lower end of the age range for several featured toys is three years old.

As kids walk through the game, they are manipulated into unwrapping advertisements disguised as mystery gifts, with the gifts only revealed as ads after opening and even then the disclosure appears in illegible fine print at the bottom of pop-up boxes.

Meanwhile, Roblox search results for “walmart,” in which Universe of Play appears among a host of Walmart titles, give no indication of which games are organic and which are sponsored. And the advergame’s landing page, which ambiguously states “By Walmart” in small print that is easy to miss, does not meet the FTC’s standard for clear and conspicuous advertising disclosure.

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The letter cited similar advertising disclosure issues with Walmart Land, which has been visited more than 11 million times since it launched last fall.

In an August 2022 Compliance Warning, CARU vowed to “strictly enforce its Advertising Guidelines in the metaverse.” For the sake of the millions of children who use Roblox every day, TINA.org and its partners are calling on CARU to follow through on its promise.

In response to a request for comment for this article, Dona Fraser, senior vice president of privacy initiatives at BBB National Programs, said in a statement that “CARU takes the concerns expressed in the letter seriously and will work with Walmart, as we do all of our COPPA Safe Harbor participants, through ongoing reviews of this product to ensure they maintain compliance with COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines.”

Find more of our coverage on Walmart, including previous TINA.org investigations into the retailer’s false and deceptive made in the USA claims, here.


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