The Consumer Ombudsman and YouTube networks prevent covert advertising

The Consumer Ombudsman has discussed best practices for ensuring the identifiability of advertising with three YouTube networks: Splay Suomi Oy, Troot Network Oy Ltd (previously known as Töttöröö) and United Screens Oy.  The Consumer Ombudsman requires the networks to instruct youtubers that they must indicate any commercial cooperation in the appropriate manner.

In spring 2017, the Consumer Ombudsman reviewed the contents of YouTube channels belonging to YouTube networks active in Finland, to investigate whether marketing was identifiable and whether it was targeted at minors. The Consumer Ombudsman invited Splay Finland, Troot Network and United Screens to a cooperation meeting in September 2017.

According to the Consumer Protection Act, the commercial purpose of marketing must be clear and the advertiser on whose behalf the marketing is done must be identified. The Consumer Ombudsman’s follow-up campaign revealed that commercial cooperation, including advertising, sponsorships and product placement, is common on YouTube. Some commercial content is identifiable as marketing, while other material remains hidden due to a lack of identifiers.

Openness and transparency benefit everyone

The Consumer Ombudsman and the YouTube networks share the same views on the identifiability of advertising. At the September meeting, the networks acknowledged their responsibility for ensuring that no covert advertising is present in their commercial cooperation projects. Openness and transparency were found to benefit both viewers and all parties involved in a commercial cooperation.

The Consumer Ombudsman required the networks to instruct youtubers to indicate commercial cooperation properly. Previously, as a self-regulatory gesture, together with IAB Finland the networks had prepared  a guide for youtubers (2017), which provides instructions on the identifiability of marketing. The Consumer Ombudsman found the contents of the guide highly instructive, but emphasised the importance of practical measures.

Uniform labelling of commercial cooperation recommended

Marketing should be identified with a separate text overlay at the beginning of the video as well as clear concepts, such as “commercial cooperation with company X”. The overlay should be created in a sufficiently clear and large font, should be distinct from the background and be visible for viewers long enough to be easily discernible.

In the Consumer Ombudsman’s opinion, the paid advertising notification feature on YouTube, “includes paid advertising content”, is not sufficient on its own, because it does not indicate for whom the marketing is performed or who the advertiser is. Moreover, the mere verbal announcement of marketing on the video is insufficient, because the viewer must be able to immediately identify the content as marketing. Since videos are often viewed without sound, a mere verbal announcement is not conveyed to the viewer.

The indications must be clear on all devices, including computers, tablets and mobile devices. If content is also produced for other channels, not only YouTube, commercial cooperation must be just as clearly indicated via these channels.

To ensure the identifiability of marketing, it is also important that even videos in which the youtuber uses, demonstrates or evaluates products received from a company free of charge or at a personal discount are properly labelled, even if an express agreement was not necessarily made with the company aiming to market its products. Advance marketing associated with an explicit commercial cooperation agreement must also be identifiable, in all cases.

No direct invitations to purchase may be targeted at minors

The meeting also clarified issues related to marketing for minors. Marketing for minors is permitted, but the criteria for the appropriateness and suitability of marketing are stricter the younger the viewers are.

For example, when included in an advertisement, a direct invitation to children to purchase a consumer product or to persuade a parent or other adult to buy an advertised product is considered a prohibited aggressive procedure, as defined by the Consumer Protection Act.

The Consumer Ombudsman will continue to monitor marketing practices on YouTube and the social media as part of normal supervisory work.

This topic is discussed in more detail in the Consumer Ombudsman’s newsletter 5/2017 (will be published in November 2017). The theme is the identifiability of advertising.