Popular YouTube Toy Review Channel Accused of Blurring Lines for Ads

Can young viewers tell the difference between advertisements and product reviews on the popular YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview?

The watchdog group Truth in Advertising says no. On Wednesday it filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the channel’s administrators of deceiving children through “sponsored videos that often have the look and feel of organic content.”

Hosted by Ryan Kaji, the 7-year-old son of Shion Kaji and Loan Kaji, and billed as a channel dedicated to “toy reviews for kids by a kid,” Ryan ToysReview has built an audience of 21 million subscribers since it started in 2015. In video after video, the host tries out new toys, usually with enthusiasm. The channel has racked up more than 30 billion views.

Nearly 90 percent of the Ryan ToysReview videos have included at least one paid product recommendation aimed at preschoolers, a group too young to distinguish between a commercial and a review, Truth in Advertising argued in its complaint. The channel’s sponsors have included Walmart, Hasbro, Netflix, Chuck E. Cheese and Nickelodeon, according to Truth in Advertising.

Many children do not recognize advertising until they are 8 or 9 years old, said Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Some videos on YouTube channels like Ryan ToysReview have noted sponsored content in small type that appears briefly, he said, or through a voice-over thank-you to the retailer or manufacturer that provided products.

“A 5-year-old isn’t going to understand that Ryan’s talking about the toys because Target is paying him to talk about the toys,” Mr. Golin said. “There may be some disclosure, but disclosure isn’t meaningful to a child that young.”

In a statement, Shion Kaji said: “The well-being of our viewers is always the top priority for us, and we strictly follow all platforms’ terms of service and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising disclosure requirements.

“As the streaming space continues to quickly grow and evolve,” Mr. Kaji continued, “we support efforts by lawmakers, industry representatives and regulators such as the F.T.C. to continuously evaluate and update existing guidelines and lay new ground rules to protect both viewers and creators.”

As so-called kidfluencers like Ryan Kaji gain popularity, brands such as Walmart, Staples and Mattel have pursued endorsement deals with them. At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission has repeatedly warned influencers to clearly disclose their relationships to brands in their social media posts. Watchdog groups have said that, without enforcement, the agency’s warnings have had little effect.

Truth in Advertising filed its complaint against Ryan ToysReview on the same day that Google, which owns YouTube, agreed to pay a $170 million fine as part of a settlement with the trade commission and New York’s attorney general for violating the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The regulators said YouTube had illegally gathered personal data from young viewers and then used it to attract millions of dollars in targeted ads.

Last month, several senators asked the commission to investigate Ryan ToysReview, which they said had posted two commercials for the fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. without disclosing that they were ads.

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, an industry regulatory group, found in 2017 that Ryan ToysReview featured sponsored content that was not properly disclosed and that ads running alongside videos on the channel — including commercials for wine and an R-rated film — should be discontinued.

The YouTube stardom of Ryan Kaji led to a deal with Nickelodeon for a cable and online series that made its debut this year, “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate.” Another offshoot of Ryan ToysReview is Ryan’s World, a line of products from the entertainment and consumer goods company Pocket.watch, which is also the producer of the Nickelodeon series. Ryan’s World products include a Ryan Kaji action figure, T-shirts and a plastic dinnerware set.

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