Think of the Children

McDonald’s Accused of Shadily Marketing to Kids via Online Games

Your suspicion that Ronald McDonald was up to something proves correct
 McDonalds Accused of Shadily Marketing to Kids via Online Games

Just hanging out, maybe collecting some emails. (Photo: flickr.com/paul_everett82

Ronald McDonald probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when parents think “internet dangers,” but you probably don’t want your kids getting unsolicited emails about the glories of french fries, either.

Well, bad news: The New York Times reports that several advocacy organizations have filed a complaint with the FTC, alleging that Micky D’s and four other companies–Viacom, General Mills, Subway and Turner–are exploiting a legal loophole in their online marketing to kids.

In true corporate fashion, however, these companies aren’t doing anything so straightforward as simply asking for 9-year-olds’ email addresses. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in fact requires sites to get parents’ “verifiable consent”  before they can collect the personal info of kids younger than 13.

But that’s just so involved, you know? And there are McNuggets to be peddled. Instead, HappyMeal.com and five other sites stand accused of an underhanded-looking work-around:

But, in complaints to the F.T.C., the coalition says six popular Web sites aimed at children have violated that law by encouraging children who play brand-related games or engage in other activities to provide friends’ e-mail addresses — without seeking prior parental consent.

Say what?

Obtaining information about adults’ social networks to e-mail marketing messages to their friends is a common industry practice called “tell a friend” or “refer a friend.” But now an increasing number of children’s sites are using the technique by inviting children to make customized videos promoting certain products, for example, and then sending them to friends.

There is, in fact, a loophole in the law that allows companies to collect friends’ addresses and send one–and only one–email, and the companies who responded to the Times piece insist that they are fully compliant with existing laws.

However, let’s put this in its proper context: The FTC is currently updating rules regarding kids’ online privacy, taking into account technologies like cookies (of the tracking variety, not the Cookie Monster kind).

Better get to hamburglering those email addresses while you still can, McDonald’s.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com