Protecting Kids from Stealth Advertising in Digital Media Executive Director Bonnie Patten to speak at FTC workshop Wednesday.

| Bonnie Patten

On Wednesday, Oct. 19, the FTC will host a virtual workshop in which it will bring together researchers, child development and legal experts, consumer advocates and industry professionals to examine the techniques used to advertise to children online and what measures should be implemented to protect kids from manipulative digital marketing. On behalf of, I am pleased to be taking part in these discussions.

In addition, filed its comment with the FTC on the topic, addressing how a child should be defined for purposes of considering who is entitled to enhanced protection from stealth marketing in digital media; children’s capacity to identify and understand advertising; the efficacy of digital disclosures for young children; the harms that stealth marketing inflicts on children; and possible measures that could be taken to minimize the harms of stealth advertising on children.

From its inception, has taken an active role in working to hold brands accountable for deceptive online marketing campaigns that target children. We have documented and made publicly available on our website thousands of examples of brands using stealth advertising tactics on digital platforms to deceive minors. We have issued warning letters to brands and influencers concerning deceptive marketing directed at kids on social media platforms, including notifying multiple alcohol companies of the deceptive promotion of alcohol on Snapchat and Instagram by celebrity music producer DJ Khaled. has also filed complaints with federal and state regulators regarding more than 75 companies and influencers, including Ryan ToysReview, Warner Brothers, EA (Electronic Arts), Cîroc and the Kardashians, providing ample documentation of deceptive and misleading digital marketing campaigns aimed at children. And we have advocated for the FTC and state attorneys general to take a more active role in protecting minors from stealth marketing on tech platforms in multiple other forums. Most recently, filed a complaint with the FTC concerning Roblox, documenting numerous examples of undisclosed advergames, endorsements and sponsored content targeting minors in the company’s metaverse, and urged the commission to take appropriate enforcement action to protect children. has focused on deceptive marketing targeting kids because although children are adept at handling technology, many kids do not have the cognitive capability to understand all of the content on digital platforms. When it comes to advertising, it is beyond dispute that children do not interpret and/or understand marketing material in the same ways that adults do – not all children have the ability to recognize advertising messages, and even those that do may not be able to critically evaluate the underlying marketing message. As a result, in addition to impacting purchasing decisions, there are other wide-ranging and serious harms resulting from stealth marketing directed at children online, including, but not limited to, honest brands and competitors being economically injured; family conflicts and tension; low self-esteem and negative body image; increase in risky and harmful behaviors; and loss of privacy as a result of commercial surveillance and data extraction.

While there are many complex issues involved in preventing the deceptive marketing that is directed toward children in digital media, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the exposure and harms associated with stealth marketing, including, but not limited to:

  • Age Gating/Age Verification: Age gating and/or age verification could be used on social media platforms and closed metaverses to prevent minors from viewing inappropriate and deceptive content such as stealth marketing.
  • Education: Parents, guardians, the educational system, the advertising industry and governmental agencies all have a role to play in ensuring that children become media literate.
  • Platform & Company Standards: Companies and tech platforms should be required to adhere to the standards and policies they have put in place to protect children.
  • Corporate Citizenship: Social media companies and tech platforms need to implement safeguards to better protect children from inappropriate and deceptive content such as stealth marketing.
  • Self-regulatory Enforcement: While its advertising guidelines, appropriately so, touch on ethical issues that are beyond the scope of the law, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) guidance fails to tackle the issues of marketing to young children that do not yet have the cognitive ability to identify advertising and/or comprehend its marketing bias. This is an area that CARU should address head on.
  • Legal Enforcement: While industry standards and self-regulatory codes may support and enhance compliance with the law, government agencies have a vital role to play in ensuring that vulnerable populations, such as children, are protected from deception as more and more ad revenue flows to digital platforms.’s work makes clear that there are a host of challenges concerning how best to protect children from the barrage of stealth advertising directed at them through increasingly sophisticated digital platforms. But the enormity of the problem cannot dissuade the commission from working to establish more robust and effective safeguards to protect children – the upcoming workshop is certainly a step in the right direction.

Bonnie Patten

Bonnie, executive director of, is an attorney and mother of three. Her commitment to educating the public about deceptive marketing stems from her belief that education is the only…

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