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Advertising: protecting Children, ASA monitoring update

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United Kingdom

On the 26 August 2020, the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") published its findings from its three month online monitoring sweep, which has helped identify and tackle age-restricted ads appearing in children's media.

The findings can be located here: https://www.asa.org.uk/news/protecting-children-online.html. Under the CAP Code, advertisers placing age-restricted ads online are required to target their ads away from child audiences. The ASA prioritised identifying and tackling online ads for gambling, alcohol, e-cigarettes and tobacco, slimming and weight control products and food and soft drinks classified as high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS products).

The ASA used monitoring tools to capture ads served on a sample of over 50 websites and YouTube channels which attracts a disproportionality high child audience. The ASA took the following approach:

  • identified a number of instances where the ad rules were broken;
  • taking follow- up action to contact the advertisers whose ads broke the rules to secure the removal of the problem ads; and
  • warned the advertisers to review and, as necessary, amend their practices to ensure they target future ads responsibly.

The ASA provided a breakdown of each product category to reveal the number of breaches:

  • Gambling- 70 different betting ads from 4 gambling operators appeared on 8 websites;
  • Alcohol- 10 different alcohol ads from 1 brand appeared on 1 website;
  • E- cigarettes and tobacco- 1 e-cigarette ad appeared on 1 website; and
  • HFSS- 78 different HFSS ads from 29 advertisers appeared on 24 websites and 5 YouTube channels. The HFSS ads covered a broad diversity e.g. ads for butter, nuts, seeds and cooking sauces. While classified as high in fat, sugar or salt, they represent a technical breach of the Cap Code.  

These findings show that by using technology to monitor online ads, the ASA are able to act swiftly to tackle irresponsible ads and help build a culture of zero tolerance for age-restricted ads which appear on website aimed at children. The ASA do expect that advertisers and the parties they contract with to use the tools available to them to target their ads responsibly and when the ASA investigate any ad that could potentially breach the CAP Code, it will scrutinise each detail of the ad and the detail around the ad being created and not always find the ad to be non-compliant with the CAP Code.

An example of this is the recent ASA investigation into an Instagram post by a former Love Island contestant and influencer, Luke Mabbott which was seen on 23 June 2020 and promoted the alcoholic beverage, VK. The post feature the caption “Hellooooooooooooo [starry-face emoji] summer has officially landed. Get @vkdrink new limited edition flavour at @goodtimeindrinks Perfect heatwave vibes. [peach emoji] #ad” alongside an image of the influencer holding a bottle of VK.

The complainant challenged whether the Instagram post breached the CAP Code because it featured someone who seemed to be under 25 years of age and whether the Instagram post had been appropriately targeted because the complainant believed that the influencer was popular with people under 18 years of age.

VK disagreed with the complaint and argued that the influencer had been chosen carefully and was over the age of 25 at the time the Instagram post was published. Furthermore, Global Brands (VK's owner) asserted that it had taken steps to ensure that the majority of the influencer's target audience were over the age of 18 before the influencer advertised the drink.   

Following the investigation of both issues, the ASA did not find the Instagram post in breach on either count. The ASA summarised that:

  • whilst the influencer did have a youthful appearance, he did not appear to be under 25 years olds in the image; and
  • although the ASA acknowledged that the influencer may appeal to some under 18 year olds due to being a former contestant on the TV show, Love Island, the ASA did not consider that the Instagram post would be of great appeal to them than those over 18 years of age.

It is also worth noting that ASA took into consideration that the Instagram post was non-paid and  was only visible to the influencer's Instagram followers and in the feeds of anyone who had interacted with similar posts or account. Furthermore, the ASA acknowledged that neither the influencer nor Global Brands would have been able to utilise the age restrictions or interest based targeting available on Instagram for 'paid-for-ads'.

The ASA will run this monitoring exercise quarterly over the next twelve months, to pick-up instances of and take action where age-restricted ads are served to child audiences. The ASA will report publically on these figures, as well as compliance action taken against repeat offenders, and share them with relevant industry groups. We recommend that you review online advertising activity and keep a lookout for any further developments. If you would like to know more about this topic, or for any advice, please contact Sara Stewart or your usual contact in Fieldfisher's Brand Development Team.

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