CARU ensures child-facing ads are truthful, accurate, and appropriate.
By Linda Bean
In November 1974, the newly launched Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) took to task Mego International, the maker of Batman and Robin themed playthings, for a television commercial that threatened to mislead kids about the wildly popular toys.
In its first published decision — stern and to the point — CARU detailed the advertisement’s shortcomings.
The commercial, CARU said, showed props that children might believe were part of the initial purchase. The ad didn’t disclose that the “Batlight” needed batteries to operate. Video techniques left a false impression of the toy’s capabilities, and the ad implied that the “Batcomputer” actually computed. The ad did not reveal that the “Batcopter” operated manually, rather than mechanically, and finally, CARU said, “there was confusion as to whether or not the action figures contained talking mechanisms.” (They did not.)
With that decision, CARU raised the bar for advertising to children and demonstrated to parents, educators, regulators, and advertisers that new and stricter standards would now apply.
The development of an advertising industry organization charged specifically with reviewing advertising directed to children was met with “considerable skepticism,” according to a 1984 article published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (Armstrong, 1984).
“Many critics feared that the Children’s Unit would be only a token effort used by the industry to weather the storm of current criticism, and that it was not intended as an effective mechanism for improving children’s advertising. There were disputes over which guidelines should be used (even whether guidelines should be used), the process by which these guidelines should be implemented, and enforcement powers and sanctions,” the article noted (Armstrong, 1984).
Despite the naysayers and handwringers, CARU has for more than 40 years provided solid guidance to children’s advertisers and served to emphasize — through its core principles and guidelines — the ethical care required when advertising to children.
CARU’s core principles underscore that children’s advertisers have special responsibilities, that advertising should not be deceptive, unfair, or inappropriate, and that advertisers should:
- Capitalize on the potential for advertising to serve an educational role and influence positive personal qualities and behaviors in children
- Avoid raising unrealistic expectations about product performance
- Refrain from advertising to children products that aren’t appropriate for them
- Be able to substantiate objective advertising claims
- Avoid social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice
- Incorporate minority and other groups in advertisements
- Present positive role models whenever possible
- Contribute to the parent-child relationship in a constructive manner
All CARU’s core principles and guidelines for advertisers are included in CARU’s governing document, the Self-Regulatory Program for Children’s Advertising.
CARU guidelines aren’t static, and they aren’t secret: The guidelines were updated in 1996 to address concerns about online data-collection practices and in 2006 to address blurring between advertising and editorial content, the practice of “advergaming,” and concerns about food advertising to children. They were revised again in 2014 to reflect changes made by the Federal Trade Commission to online data-collection rules. CARU staff are regularly invited to conferences, classes, and seminars to explain the guidelines and how they apply.
CARU receives its financial support directly from children’s advertisers. The CARU Supporters’ Council meets twice a year to discuss emerging issues, learn about CARU decisions, and consider best practices. CARU supporters also enjoy discounts on products and services, including pre-screening of their advertising.
Most U.S. advertisers understand their responsibility to deal scrupulously with their youngest audience and embrace the CARU principles. At the same time, marketing to children has exploded across digital platforms, creating new opportunities and raising new issues.
The challenge for CARU and children’s advertisers is to ensure that the same high standards that apply to traditional children’s advertising can be adapted to the digital world. This is an exciting period of growth and innovation. Building on the success of the past 40 years, CARU welcomes new opportunities to promote high standards for advertising directed to children.
Armstrong, Gary M. (1984). An evaluation of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 3(1), 38-55.
Linda Bean is the Director of Communications at the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council, a position she has been privileged to hold since 2005. Previously a newspaper reporter and editor, she has worked at publications in Wyoming, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, focusing primarily on issues of criminal justice and civil rights.