Several consumer advocacy groups have a problem with Walmart’s entry into the metaverse. The online retailer announced last fall the launch of two new virtual worlds on Roblox, “Walmart Land” and “Universe of Play,” aimed at attracting the next generation of shoppers. The experiences allow Roblox users to play games with popular children’s toys and characters, win virtual toys that drop from an airship, complete challenges, and explore “toy worlds,” among other things. But the groups argue that Walmart is blurring the lines between advertising and organic content and failing to adequately disclose that the content within these virtual worlds are essentially ads and should be labeled as such.
Walmart, however, disputes these allegations and says it complies with US children’s privacy laws.
The groups, spearheaded by ad watchdog Truthinadvertising.org (TINA.org), sent a letter to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) asking them to audit Walmart’s Roblox games.
CARU is part of the largest non-profit BBB National Programs, which oversees a dozen industry self-regulatory programs in the US. In January 2001, CARU’s program became the first safe harbor approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) under the privacy law, COPPA. That means participants who adhere to CARU’s guidelines are considered to be in compliance with COPPA, which protects them from any FTC enforcement action.
Simply put, being flagged as potentially non-compliant with the CARU program is not something a participant would want to happen, as it could put them on the FTC’s radar.
In the letter, the advocacy groups write to CARU’s senior vice president, Dona Fraser, to warn the organization about Walmart’s Roblox experience, “Universe of Play,” alleging that the virtual world aimed at young children is deceptively marketing Walmart goods and services without providing proper disclosures. that the game itself and the content it contains are actually advertisements. Additionally, the groups note that Walmart is using CARU’s COPPA Safe Harbor program seal to convey the message that the game complies with the organization’s guidelines.
The letter describes various aspects of the Walmart Roblox experience that the groups say indicate its nature as an “ad game.”
This includes how the game draws from Walmart’s toy catalog and its use of popular toys and characters, such as LOL Surprise!, Jurassic World branded items, PAW Patrol, Magic Mixie, Razor scooters, and others sold in stores. Walmart stores and online. The game also encourages children to “collect the best toys”, where only in fine print does the game note that “This is an advertisement.” Similarly, as the children walk around the island, they open gift boxes where, again, toys are displayed, but the message “this is an advertisement” appears in a barely visible font. These gift boxes reveal the best-selling products in the toy category, like a Vtech smartwatch for kids, popular dolls, race cars, and more.
Other unobtrusive announcement reveals appear elsewhere in the game as well, such as signs that player avatars are walking past while collecting coins, finding toy boxes, or engaging in other virtual activities, the letter says.
Similarly, the groups take issue with “Walmart Land,” another Roblox virtual world where kids can play as avatars and where “Universe of Play” is also marketed.
Both games, combined, have attracted more than 12 million views since their release, the letter says. Both games are also accessible to kids of any age, as the “Age Guidelines” for games on Roblox are labeled “N/A.” The letter emphasizes that children under the age of 13 do not “fully understand the persuasive intent” of things like entertainment marketing.
“Walmart’s blatant use of stealth marketing targeting young children who are unable to recognize promotional content is not only appalling, it is misleading and against truth-in-advertising laws,” said TINA’s legal director .org, Laura Smith, in a press release. . “We urge CARU to take swift action to protect the millions of children Walmart handles every day,” she added.
In addition to TINA.org, the groups that signed the letter include Fairplay, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates. They are asking CARU to audit Walmart games for compliance.
However, Walmart, when contacted for comment, claims this has already happened.
In a statement shared with TechCrunch, the retailer 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, meets the strict COPPA requirements and CARU guidelines.
Due to its younger user base, Roblox has already attracted the attention of other companies looking to market to children, including Sanrio (Hello Kitty) and Mattel, which last year released a He-Man game on the platform. Mattel also partnered with Forever 21 in 2021 on a Barbie-inspired collection and the world debut of Kellogg’s “Froot Loops.”
In addition to kid-friendly brands, many other companies have also targeted younger Roblox users, including H&M, Spotify, Netflix, Samsung, Chipotle, Nike, Vans, and more.
The extent to which Walmart does or does not have to make adjustments to its Roblox games could help set a precedent as more brands enter the gaming worlds and the metaverse and advertising industry define their practices for this new form of networking. social.