Consumer Groups Ask 'NY Times' to Stable 'Trojan Horse' Ads for Google

Consumer groups including Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy are telling the The New York Times that it's time to drop the ads in its New York Times for Kids, calling them deceptive and blurring the line between and paid content. The Times disputes the characterization.

That complaint came in a letter to Times chair Arthur Sulzberger Jr. responding to a Nov. 19 supplement for young readers in which almost a third of the pages (5 of 16) were ads for the Google Home Mini, an internet-connected device they say could "endanger"kids' privacy and welfare.

The groups said the ads were "disguised" as puzzles and so violate the Better Business Bureau's Children's Advertising Review Unit's (CARU) voluntary guidelines, which mandate a "clear distinction" between advertising and content; the groups sent copies of the letter to CARU  and Google.

David Monahan, campaign manager for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Multichannel News that he had contacted CARU Wednesday morning and asked it to investigate.

The groups  noted in the letter that the NYT plans to make the supplement a monthly feature starting in the new year.

The letter's tone was cordial. The groups applauded the idea of a children's supplement, but not as a "Trojan Horse" for Google ads.

"The ads were brightly colorful cartoon drawings, with interwoven questions in bubbles meant to engage children – a visual style quite similar to much of the editorial content of the supplement," the letter noted. "Each ad was disguised as a puzzle for kids, with this question at the bottom referring to Google characters embedded in the ads: 'Can you find the donut, G and Android in each drawing?'"

ATimes spokesperson said: "Advertising helps support our ability to create special sections like this one. In fact, our first special kids section, which published in May 2017, also contained ads. The ads in question met our advertising acceptability standards, and we do not believe there is any confusion that these pages are, in fact, ads."

The groups believe that all marketing directed to children is inherently unfair and that the Google Home product is inherently harmful to children given that Google can share children's infrmation with third parties for the purposes of marketing to kids.

“The Times Company must stop trying to monetize children in order to build new revenues for its brand,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “It diminishes its reputation by engaging in unprofessional practices towards kids in order to generate sales of ads from Google. The Times is also placing children’s privacy at risk by promoting Google’s vast commercial surveillance apparatus.”

As to the Times' defense.

"It’s disingenuous for the Times to say there’s no confusion about the Google ads which ran in The Times For Kids," said Monahan. "Young kids don’t even understand the persuasive intent of marketing—they are certainly misled when it’s hidden in a cartoon puzzle. Children’s Advertising Review Unit standards ban advertising in a manner that 'blurs the distinction between advertising and program/editorial content in ways that would be misleading to children.'  These Google Home cartoons obliterated that distinction."

Other groups signing on to the letter were Consumer Action, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Watchdog.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.