What if my e-communication is directed towards minors?
The importance of the role of minors in relation to a company’s e-reputation will depend on the company’s business. If a company’s products or services are likely to be used (or desired) by minors, it will often try to direct specific messages towards them or at least take them into consideration in its overall e-communication. Indeed, minors (and teenagers in particular), who are increasingly active on the Internet, are often inclined to share their findings online and they probably have more free time than adults.
In Janssens-Quidam’s case, the product is at least partly directed towards minors, as its target audience is between 12 and 30 years old. In addition, photos uploaded by web users generally feature 15- to 24-year-olds who are proud to have the same hat as their Hollywood idol.
(a) Rules specifically linked to minors
(i) Belgian Criminal Code: abuse, sexuality and public morality
The Belgian Criminal Code prohibits a range of types of behaviour in relation to minors.
Pursuant to Articles 380ter and following of the Belgian Criminal Code, there is a prohibition of advertising in relation to services of a sexual nature specifically directed towards minors or featuring minors (or persons who are allegedly minors).
Article 493 of the Belgian Criminal Code contains a prohibition that can be relevant for a wider variety of advertising messages, namely the prohibition of any abuse of the needs, weaknesses, passions or ignorance of a minor with a view to making the minor agree, to his or her detriment, to obligations, receipts, discharges, bills of exchange or any other mandatory bills [Note: Rough translation.
French text: "[abuser] des besoins, des faiblesses, des passions ou de l’ignorance d’un mineur […] pour lui faire souscrire, à son préjudice, des obligations, quittances, décharges, effets de commerce ou tous autres effets obligatoires […]"
Dutch text: "misbruik [maken] van de behoeften, de zwakheden, de hartstochten of de onwetendheid van een minderjarige […] om hem, te zijnen nadele, verbintenissen, kwijtingen, schuldbevrijdingen, handelspapieren of enig ander verbindend papier te doen tekenen […]"].
In addition, the other prohibitions for which the Belgian Criminal Code provides are to be kept in mind, amongst other things the prohibition of any breach of public morality. Promotional communication featuring non-standard behaviour is therefore to be carefully examined.
(ii) Children or teenagers?
As indicated previously, Article 94(5) of the AMPC considers as an aggressive (and therefore prohibited) commercial practice the act of act of ‘[i]ncluding in an advertisement a direct exhortation to children to buy advertised products or persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them’ [Note: English version of Directive 2005/29/EC.
French text: "dans une publicité, inciter directement les enfants à acheter ou à persuader leurs parents ou d’autres adultes de leur acheter le produit faisant l’objet de la publicité."
Dutch text: "kinderen er in reclame rechtstreeks toe aanzetten om geadverteerde producten te kopen of om hun ouders of andere volwassenen ertoe over te halen die producten voor hen te kopen."].
It is unfortunate that the term ‘children’ is not defined in the AMPC [Note: See A. Nottet, ‘Mineurs et téléphonie mobile’, R.G.D.C. 2008, p. 251.]. While there does not yet appear to be any case law on the matter, one may nevertheless refer to the distinction made by the European Commission between ‘children’ and ‘teenagers’ in the framework of the implementation and application of Directive 2005/29/EC (the provisions of which are implemented into Belgian law by the AMPC):
Children might be particularly vulnerable to advertisements about videogames. Despite the fact that a substantial part of the target audience is constituted by adults, a trader could reasonably foresee that such advertisements may have an impact on a vulnerable category of consumers such as children. For example, the compatibility of a videogame with a specific device may be sufficiently clear to an adult consumer but, due to the way the information is provided, it may still confuse children.
Teenagers represent another category of consumers who are often targeted by rogue traders. An example of this is promoting products which are particularly appealing to teenagers in a way which exploits their lack of attention or reflection due to their immaturity. For example, an advertisement for mobile phone services conveying the message that by subscribing to a particular loyalty plan you can easily make and maintain friends is likely to be taken more literally by teenagers. [Note: European Commission, Guidance on the implementation/application of Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices, 3 December 2009, SEC(2009) 1666, p. 30 (available online).]
In the light of this distinction between the concepts of ‘child’ and ‘teenager’, there are arguments for holding that Article 94(5) of the AMPC does not concern teenagers. It would then be possible in advertising to directly exhort teenagers to buy the advertised product.
One final step remains, though: one must still define the age at which childhood ends and adolescence begins. In this respect, the terminology used in the English version (which seems to be the original on which the French and Dutch versions are based [Note: The graph at the end of the document that explains the steps for assessing whether a commercial practice is permitted or prohibited still contains the words ‘Practice is prohibited’ in English in both the French and Dutch versions.]) of the European Commission’s document can be of some help, as the term ‘teenager’ is used (not adolescent). Linguistically, though, this term designates minors whose age finishes in ‘-teen’ (thirteen, fourteen, etc.).
There are therefore reasonable arguments for considering that the ‘children’ category in the AMPC only covers minors of less than 13 years of age and that as a result, minors of 13 years of age or more can be the direct target of advertising aiming to promote the sale of products.
Another aspect worth stressing is the fact that Article 94(5) of the AMPC only concerns purchases. Exhorting children to download digital goods available free of charge (and legally, naturally) will therefore not in principle be a violation of this provision.
Finally, it bears reminding that, as stated by the European Commission in the paragraphs quoted previously, both children and teenagers can be a category of ‘vulnerable consumers’. As a result, any commercial practice that (i) ‘is contrary to the requirements of professional diligence’ and (ii) ‘materially distorts or is likely to materially distort the economic behaviour with regard to the product’ of the average member of the group of children or teenagers (until and including 17-year-olds) to which it is directed (Article 84 AMPC) [Note: English version of Directive 2005/29/EC.
French text: "Une pratique commerciale est déloyale lorsqu’elle : a) est contraire aux exigences de la diligence professionnelle et b) altère ou est susceptible d’altérer de manière substantielle le comportement économique du consommateur moyen qu’elle touche ou auquel elle s’adresse, ou si elle s’adresse à un groupe de consommateurs déterminé, le comportement économique du membre moyen de ce groupe, par rapport au produit concerné."
Dutch text: "Een handelspraktijk is oneerlijk wanneer zij : a) in strijd is met de vereisten van professionele toewijding en b) het economische gedrag van de gemiddelde consument die zij bereikt of op wie zij gericht is of, indien zij op een bepaalde groep consumenten gericht is, het economische gedrag van het gemiddelde lid van deze groep, met betrekking tot het onderliggende product wezenlijk verstoort of kan verstoren."].