'Phony PR Tour': TikTok Partners With Child Advocacy Groups To Keep Kids Using App

The Ad Council and the National PTA are boosting the Chinese spyware app amid crackdowns

A user scrolls TikTok / Reuters
February 16, 2023

TikTok has some unlikely allies in its fight to keep its popular video platform in the hands of children, including an organization that calls itself the "largest child advocacy association in America."

Since 2020, the China-owned video app has donated more than $2 million to the National PTA to promote "safe" use of the popular video platform to parents and teachers. And since 2019, TikTok has given at least $725,000 to the Ad Council for several ad campaigns. In exchange, TikTok receives promotional support from the organizations. The National PTA hails TikTok as "a source of joy and inspiration" for its users. The Ad Council, which appointed a TikTok executive to its board in 2020, has called the social media platform "the future of youth marketing."

Those partnerships could serve as a bulwark against growing congressional and public scrutiny of TikTok's links to the Chinese government and its role in providing harmful content to children.

Congress banned TikTok on government-issued devices because of the Chinese government's access to user data on the platform, and a growing number of lawmakers have called for an outright ban of the app in the United States. Lawmakers and child safety groups have scrutinized TikTok for feeding sexually explicit and harmful content to teenagers. According to a recent report, law enforcement officials view TikTok as the biggest risk for child exploitation of any social media platform, thanks to its popularity with preteens and teenagers. The story details cases of adult men using TikTok to track down and find underage girls, in some cases striking up online relationships with them and propositioning them for explicit videos.

Facing that scrutiny, TikTok has mounted an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign to stave off regulation or outright prohibition of its service. The company spent $5,470,000 last year lobbying Congress and federal agencies, according to Senate records. One of its executives testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in 2021 to defend TikTok's safety measures and touted the company's relationship with the National PTA.

But some lawmakers and parent advocacy groups see TikTok's partnerships as a "phony" public relations stunt intended to "rehabilitate" its image.

"TikTok is a Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party, and poses a security threat to all Americans who have the app on their devices," said Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy and technology.

TikTok funds the National PTA's "Create with Kindness" and "Safer Internet Day" campaigns and organizes events for TikTok executives to promote the site to families and help "teens on their digital journey."

While the events are ostensibly held to educate parents and teachers about TikTok, the company also uses them for promotional purposes, according to internal PTA documents. TikTok and the PTA require parents to sign media consent forms that allow TikTok "to take or use photographs and/or video of me and my family" for the purposes of "publicity, illustration, advertising, and web content."

"It is astonishing that an organization trusted by families would lean into a relationship with TikTok—particularly at a time when national security professionals and policymakers across the country raise well-founded concerns about TikTok's data practices," said Nicole Neily, the founder of Parents Defending Education. According to a recent survey commissioned by the group, 68 percent of parents are concerned about their children's use of TikTok, which feeds short videos to users based on an algorithm of their previous activity on the app.

One recent study found that young TikTok users can access content related to suicide and eating disorders within minutes of signing onto the platform. TikTok has also seen the spread of contests in which users challenge others to engage in risky or criminal acts. According to Bloomberg, at least 15 children aged 12 or under have died from the "Blackout Challenge," in which users hold their breath until they pass out.

TikTok's partnership with the Ad Council is in some ways more entrenched than with the National PTA.

Through contributions of between $725,000 and $950,000 since 2019, TikTok has sponsored a series of public service campaigns, such as "The Power of Us," in cooperation with CDC to "empower the black community to continue to help stop the spread of coronavirus." TikTok also sponsors the "We Can Talk About It" mental health campaign.

In exchange, the global head of TikTok's creative lab serves on the Ad Council's campaign review committee, which helps shape campaigns to "address the country's most pressing issues." The head of TikTok's global business solutions serves on the Ad Council's board of directors.

The arrangement has brought positive coverage from the Ad Council, best known for its PSAs featuring characters like Smokey Bear and McGruff the Crime Dog. The Ad Council in 2020 praised TikTok as "the future of youth marketing" and said the platform provides a "unique opportunity" for marketers because 60 percent of its users are 24 years old or younger.

In November 2022, the Ad Council profiled TikTok executive Bradley Hunter as a "Champion of Good." Hunter touted the Ad Council partnership with TikTok as a way to "harness the power of our unique platform and vibrant creators to drive action on Ad Council's mental health initiatives and beyond."

Hawley told the Washington Free Beacon that TikTok's extensive lobbying and payments to advocacy groups show the company "is desperate to keep their app in the United States and ensure it maintains a toxic grip on Americans" by spending millions of dollars on "sanitization efforts in an attempt to rehabilitate their image."

"Their phony PR tour won't work," Hawley told the Free Beacon. "We know the security risks posed by TikTok, and it needs to be banned."

TikTok, the National PTA, and the Ad Council did not respond to requests for comment.