The groups said Walmart’s Universe of Play was an advergame and asked CARU to review it. The retailer said CARU OK’d it before launch.
Walmart has pulled its Universe of Play experience from global gaming platform Roblox after consumer groups complained about it to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU). The Unit had previously OK’d it.
Why we care. Can marketers or consumers trust CARU’s seal of approval? If we take Walmart at its word — and so far there is no reason not to — CARU reviewed and approved Universe of Play. The retail giant likely thought this would protect them not just from the FTC, but from charges like those made by the consumer groups.
Those complaints were significant and should arguably have been foreseen. Now both marketers and consumers must wonder if CARU is providing meaningful oversight or just a fig leaf?
What it was. Universe of Play was one of two Walmart marketing efforts launched in Roblox, a metaverse platform, last September. It featured interactive games where users could win virtual coins to buy virtual merchandise.
The company said the marketing was aimed at consumers between the ages of 17 and 24. However, the key brand tie-ins for Universe of Play were Jurassic World, Paw Patrol and Razor Scooters, which appeal to a significantly younger audience.
The complaints. In January, the ad watchdog truthinadvertising.org and several other consumer groups, sent a letter to CARU saying Universe of Play targeted young children and was marketing products without providing proper disclosures that site and its content are actually ads.
The groups also said Walmart’s use of CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor Program seal conveyed the message the game was compliant with the organization’s guidelines.
CARU is one of a dozen industry self-regulation programs run by the nonprofit BBB National Programs. In 2001, CARU’s advertising program was the first to be certified by the FTC as a Safe Harbor under the U.S.’s children’s online privacy law, COPPA. Participants who adhere to CARU’s guidelines are considered to be in compliance with the law and protected from any FTC enforcement action.
An unsafe harbor. The consumer groups’ letter also asked CARU to audit Walmart’s Roblox games. The retailer issued a statement saying this had already been done: “In December 2022, Walmart was approved to join CARU’s?COPPA Safe Harbor Program?after demonstrating that Universe of Play, a new immersive Roblox experience, complies with the stringent requirements of COPPA and CARU’s Guidelines.”
Some time after that Walmart removed the game from the site. Neither Walmart nor CARU have responded to requests for comment.
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