Talking Cat App Should Keep Quiet on Advertising, CARU Recommends

Advertising Law

A mobile application that features a talking cat and is geared toward children must clearly disclose its advertising content, must delete inappropriate ads in the app and must remove advertising content from its privacy policy, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit recently recommended.

The self-regulatory body reviewed Outfit 7 Ltd.’s My Talking Tom app, which features an animated cat that users can control by having him eat, sleep, play, change clothes and go to the bathroom. CARU expressed concern when it found several forms of advertisements in the app.

Static banner ads appeared at the top of the landing page, labeled with a small disclosure that stated “ad,” but some of them featured products not appropriate for children, such as video games rated for teenagers and a prescription drug. The upper right side of the landing page also featured a button with an image of an Outfit 7 character. When clicked, it showed an ad for another game from the company. The button was not labeled as an advertisement.

During game play, ads would occasionally launch automatically. In one instance, when CARU clicked on the button for Talking Tom to go to sleep, a pop-up ad for the teen-rated video game Sniper 3D Assassin: Shoot to Kill launched. After a child watched an ad, a button labeled “Continue” would appear, featuring a play symbol. If the user clicked the button, another ad would play and the cycle would continue until the child exited out of the screen by clicking on an “X” in the top right corner.

CARU also investigated the app’s privacy policy and found that advertising appears over the text while animated balloons floated up throughout the policy, blocking some of the text.

Children viewing the ads that appeared throughout the My Talking Tom app “could reasonably believe that the ads were game content,” CARU found.

For example, the Outfit 7 character that appeared on the landing page containing an advertisement for another game is not labeled as an ad, while the button labeled “Continue” with a play symbol did not clearly and conspicuously disclose that the advertisements were ads or that by clicking on the play button a user was activating an ad.

Even where the app did attempt a disclosure, it was small and hard to see, CARU said, while statements such as “continue,” “watch videos” and “open” were prominently displayed in bold lettering.

The app also contained unsafe and inappropriate ads, the self-regulatory body noted, including both a prescription drug used to treat drug addiction and teen-rated video games. The Sniper Assassin ad depicted a man looking through the scope of a gun as well as a man holding a gun to a woman’s head.

Finally, “the animated promotional images for Outfit 7’s games were distracting and unrelated to the privacy information being provided to the consumer,” CARU wrote, and therefore, the app’s privacy policy did not comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Outfit 7 agreed to make the necessary changes to bring the Talking Tom app into compliance by removing the marketing materials from the privacy policy and contracting with a third-party service provider to help monitor the content of the ads shown in its apps.

To read CARU’s press release about the decision, click here.

Why it matters: The takeaway for advertisers? “In today’s marketplace, there are always new formats of advertising, but the basic truth-in-advertising principles remain the same: it is deceptive to mislead consumers about the commercial nature of content,” CARU wrote. “Advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they are something other than ads.” This is particularly true for child-directed websites and apps, where operators that integrate ads into the content of a game or activity should make clear, in a manner easily understood by the intended audience, that they are advertisements.