Complaint Says Ring Pop Campaign Violated Children’s Privacy

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In many ways, it was a typical social media marketing campaign featuring user-generated content — only this promotion involved a brand popular with children.

Earlier this year, the company behind Ring Pop, a jewel-shaped sucking candy on a plastic ring, ran a contest called #RockThatRock. It invited users to post photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram of “how they ‘rock’ their edible bling,” as one fan site put it, and to use the #RockThatRock hashtag. The winning photos were featured in a music video by R5, a pop-rock band popular with teenage and pre-teenage girls.

Some of the #RockThatRock photos were posted on the brand’s Facebook and Twitter pages, along with contestants’ social media user names. Some of those photos depicted teenaged girls — and a few who looked even younger – in provocative poses, with their lips puckered around Ring Pop candies.

Now, 10 advocacy groups have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the Topps Company, the maker of Ring Pops, accusing the company of violating a federal children’s privacy protection law. That law, called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act or Coppa, requires operators of sites directed at children to notify parents and obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information – including photos and screen names that could be used to directly contact users online – from children under 13.

“Showing young girls licking the candy in a Lolita-type way, it’s outrageous,” said Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist in Potomac, Md., who is the chairman of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, one of the groups behind the complaint. By knowing the contestants’ user names, he added, “you could get in contact with them. Children shouldn’t be put in this situation.”

In the complaint, filed on Tuesday, the advocacy groups contended that Topps did not seek verifiable consent from parents before collecting, and then publicly disclosing, photos and screen names of children under 13.

According to the terms of use for the Ring Pop contest, the act of “voluntarily posting photographs, videos, comments or other material tagged with one of our promoted hashtags,” constituted permission from users or their parents for the Topps Company to use, reproduce, modify, publish or broadcast that content.

In a statement, the company said: “Topps vehemently disagrees with these assertions.  Topps takes the utmost care to abide by all applicable regulations concerning children’s privacy, including COPPA, in its marketing campaigns and promotions.”

The statement added, “Topps will review all of the information included in the request to the FTC and will fully cooperate with any requests the FTC may have.”

Although the contest encouraged users to submit photos of themselves via social media sites — not through the Topps Company’s own site — the complaint argues that the company was required to comply with the online privacy law because it benefited from the collection of children’s personal information.

Facebook does not allow users to register if they say they are under 13, and Twitter and Instagram say they are not intended for use by children. But the advocacy groups noted that millions of younger children are believed to have social media accounts and that the company could not assume that all social media account users were 13 or older.

The groups also argue in the complaint that Topps failed to accurately disclose its data collection practices in its privacy policy, and that the company continued to use children’s photographs after the contest had ended.

The children’s online privacy rule requires that online operators retain personal information from children only as long as is necessary to fulfill the purpose for which the information was collected. But the #RockThatRock music video — which the complaint contends includes photos of “children who look younger than thirteen” — remains on YouTube, where it has been seen nearly 900,000 times.

The groups behind the complaint are led by the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Washington. Others include the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University; the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Consumer Action; Consumers Union; Consumer Watchdog; the Consumer Federation of America; the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood; and the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ.

“Topps is so eager to harness children to promote their products that, regardless of whether this violates the law or is even appropriate, they are encouraging kids to go public on social media, exposing themselves to a vast unknown public,” said Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. “Beyond Topps, many companies are encouraging children to use social media, in violation of Coppa, to promote their products or brands.”

This is not the first time a Topps Promotion has come under scrutiny from children’s advocates.

In 2011, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, investigated Topps for promoting online games for children without clearly signifying that the games were marketing tools intended to promote the sale of Ring Pops.

Topps responded by adding a written disclosure — “HEY KIDS THIS IS ADVERTISING” — to its online games.

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