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Walmart runs creepy 'advergame' on Roblox, where kids can make toy wish lists

Toys that can then be purchased at... you guessed it, say critics in letter to watchdog

Rights organizations have asked a US children's ad watchdog to audit an app from Walmart, claiming it is "deceptively marketing" to young children who play Roblox by way of an "advergame" called Walmart Universe of Play.

The groups, which include Truth in Advertising, are alleging Walmart is not making clear that the app advertises its products.

To add insult to injury, the groups claim in a joint letter that Walmart only weeks ago signed up to the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Safe Harbor Program and used the special seal of CARU, the very watchdog the groups are asking to intervene, to show parents the "advergame" complied with the Act.

According to the group's complaint [PDF]:

Once a user arrives at the Walmart Universe of Play landing page, small print beneath the game name ambiguously says "By Walmart" – an indicator that most Roblox users are unlikely to see, and even if they do see it, many Roblox users (especially children) may not understand that this means the virtual world is an advertisement disguised as a game.

Universe of Play

The app in question – Universe of Play (from the letter)

It adds that "despite having no clear and conspicuous disclosure to inform children that Walmart Universe of Play is an advergame, the marketing has already begun. Not only is the game named and modeled after the retail giant's Universe of Play toy catalog, but some of the year's 'best toys' are featured in an image carousel at the top of the page, and kids are told that if they enter this experience, they can 'Have [their] own LOL Surprise! fashion show,' 'Hunt for missing dino eggs in Jurassic World,' 'Join the PAW Patrol to help find Chickaletta' .... all products sold in Walmart stores and on"

When we asked the $385.69 billion market cap retailer for comment, a spokesperson said: "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."

In its fiscal 2022, the corporation, which owns Asda in the UK, the Builders Warehouse and Makro chains all over Africa and several Massmart and Walmart chains over the globe, pulled in $578 billion in revenue for the year, returning $15.9 billion to shareholders.

The United States' COPPA, which came into effect in April, 2000, and was amended in 2013, applies to commercial websites and online services (including smartphone apps) aimed at, or known to be used by, children under 13 that collect, use, or disclose personal data. It requires that the services provide notice they're using the data and ask for parental consent.

In the UK, privacy issues relating to children are looked after by the Data Protection Act 2018, under which the "UK GDPR" falls. In the European Union, personal data can only be collected and processed on the grounds of consent of a parent or guardian if a child is under 16. Member states can individually lower this to 13.

A controversial new bill in the UK, the Online Safety Bill, which was undergoing its second reading at the House of Lords at the time of publication, wants to take this further, and is looking once again to weaken encryption in the name of the children's safety. We had a peek this morning and age verification still features in the version that came back from the Commons.

Attention, Walmart shoppers

The Truth In Advertising group, meanwhile said that with the advergame, Walmart made good on its promise to "reach.. our customers in unexpected ways" but not in a good way – adding that many children are "unable to recognize the promotional nature and persuasive intent of such marketing material."

It notes that because Walmart marked its advergame as "All Ages Suitable for everyone", anyone on Roblox can enter it. "This includes young children whose parents have changed the settings on their children's Roblox accounts so that they may only access content suitable for 'all ages,' as recently informed the FTC and Roblox."

Think of the children('s wallets)

In December last year, Fortnite owner Epic Games paid a whopping $520 million in cash after a pair of unanimous (4-0) decisions from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found it guilty of violating children's privacy and tricking customers into making unwanted purchases.

"Epic ignored more than one million user complaints and repeated employee concerns that 'huge' numbers of users were being wrongfully charged," the FTC alleged at the time, adding that "Using internal testing, Epic purposefully obscured cancel and refund features to make them more difficult to find."


Children should have separate sections in social media sites, says UK coroner


The dev responded at the time: "The old status quo for in-game commerce and privacy has changed, and many developer practices should be reconsidered."

Maybe it's best to stick to CBeebies and PBS apps rather than those aligned with commercial franchises, or maybe limit electronics altogether, though it's easier said than done with those who work and don't have childcare.

At least then you won't find yourself asking: "Why is the Mayor of the Paw Patrol town constantly chasing her pet chicken Chickaletta rather than attending to civic duties?" And: "Why are puppies – not even fully grown dogs – tasked with rescuing townsfolk?" Although even the excellent Octonauts, with its "Creature Reports" marine biology recaps, have made Reg parents wonder: "Why did these seafaring biologists, upon meeting the 'Vegimals', which inexplicably have both plant and animal biology, ask no further questions but simply immediately put them to work in the kitchen making biscuits?"

We'll never know. ®

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