HomeInsightsAdvertising Standards Authority publishes findings from the second of its online monitoring sweeps to identify and tackle age-restricted ads appearing in children’s media

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Under the Advertising Code advertisers placing age-restricted ads online are required to target their ads away from child audiences.

Following on from the ASA’s first report in a year-long project (published in August 2020), the ASA undertook another CCTV-style watch to prioritise identifying and tackling inappropriately placed 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 says that work is underway to prevent a repeat of breaches identified in the first report, which covered the period April to June 2020. As those breaches could not be notified to advertisers until after the monitoring data had been assessed, the ASA did not expect to see the results of that work in this report. However, encouragingly, the overall number of ads found to have broken the rules has reduced in comparison to the first sweep.

Over the three month period, from July to September 2020, using monitoring tools to capture age-restricted ads served on a sample of 49 websites and seven YouTube channels attracting a disproportionately high child audience, the ASA:

  • identified further instances where the ad rules were broken;
  • is 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 notes that ads for a wide variety of products and services, of which age-restricted ads are likely to be a small subset, will have been served to the monitored websites and YouTube channels over the monitoring period. The report draws no conclusions about the rate of children’s exposure to age-restricted ads on these monitored channels. In summary, the ASA found that:

  • overall, 127 age-restricted ads broke the advertising rules; and
  • in total, 44 advertisers placed age-restricted ads in 27 websites and four YouTube channels aimed at or attracting a disproportionately large child audience.

A breakdown of each product category reveals the following number of breaches:

  • gambling: five different betting ads from three gambling operators appeared on six websites and zero YouTube channels;
  • alcohol: six different alcohol ads from four brands appeared on two websites and three YouTube channels;
  • weight reduction: 14 different weight reduction ads from two advertisers appeared on eight websites and one YouTube channel; and
  • HFSS: 102 different HFSS ads (with around half of products being technical breaches of the rules, which are unlikely to appeal to children e.g. cooking sauces, olive oil etc.) from 35 advertisers appeared on 27 websites and four YouTube channels.

No ads for e-cigarettes were picked up during this monitoring period.

Encouragingly, the ASA says, the number of gambling ads reduced significantly, from 70 ads in the first sweep to five ads in the second sweep. Significantly, none of the gambling operators contacted during the national lockdown were found to have broken the rules during this latest monitoring exercise.

The ASA notes that on 6 October 2020, Google introduced a new policy for HFSS ads which requires advertisers to self-declare their ads as HFSS and will restrict the serving of these ads to logged-in users with a declared age of 18+ only. It is anticipated that this new policy will have a positive impact on the ASA’s next monitoring report.

As part of its five-year strategy, “More Impact Online”, the ASA says that it will continue running this monitoring exercise quarterly to pick up instances of and take action where age-restricted ads are served on child-orientated websites and YouTube channels. The regulator will report publicly on these figures and it reserves the discretion to publicise repeat offenders. To read the ASA’s press release in full and for further information, click here.