Think of the Children – ASA Showcases New Approach to Online Protection of Minors
Late last week, the Advertising Standards Authority published the results of an investigation into online advertising on platforms frequented by children, seeking to ascertain whether advertisers are complying with the CAP code as it relates to the protection of young audiences. By monitoring a sample of websites and YouTube channels with significant child viewership, the ASA has produced an indicative account of which restricted subjects advertisers are most often placing on platforms with high youth viewership. It intends to repeat the exercise throughout the year to produce quarterly reports and ensure enforcement against repeat offenders.
What were the ASA looking for and why?
The investigation focussed on particular products considered harmful to young audiences, rather than inappropriate materials (e.g. violent imagery) or prohibited methods (e.g. directly encouraging children to make purchases). The ASA was concerned to know whether enough care is taken to ensure that adverts for age-restricted products are placed on platforms with appropriately aged audience demographics. The criteria focussed on unhealthy or dangerous diet and lifestyle products to which younger audiences are considered particularly vulnerable – namely advertising for alcohol, gambling, tobacco/e-cigarette products, weight loss products and HFSS (High Fat, Salt or Sugar) foods.
What did they find?
The bare results suggest that HFSS foods were by far the least carefully placed adverts in the context of child protection. However, the ASA noted that the majority of these breaches related to products which are not likely to appeal to children – citing butter, nuts and cooking sauces as examples – and were thus only technical breaches of the code. The most significant results were the findings that one (as yet unnamed) brand placed 10 alcohol adverts on the same website with a high child user rate, whilst 4 (unnamed) gambling companies placed 70 such ads across 8 platforms between them.
Where will they go from here?
The ASA has promised publicly reported compliance action against repeat offenders. As such, this first report can be regarded as a warning shot from the regulator, with those contacted about their non-compliance remaining anonymous and unsanctioned for now. Should relevant businesses continue to misplace their adverts, enforcement action and public exposure may well follow.
This monitoring exercise represents a proactive and technologically astute step for the ASA in clamping down on the exposure of children to potentially harmful behaviour. Younger audiences today are highly tech-literate and access a wide variety of online material. Consequently, it is insufficient to define the regulatory boundaries of online material by reference to its target group – effective enforcement requires analysis of the demographic actually accessing material. However, advertisers will be pleased to note that the ASA appears prepared to take a reasonable line regarding inadvertent or inconsequential breaches. Their decision not to punish offenders on first warning is indicative of an understanding that identifying an online audience is a more complex matter than, for example, identifying the target market of print media. Equally, their acknowledgment that many HFSS food adverts were mere ‘technical breaches’ sounds a welcome tone of restraint, suggestive that the authority will not take action for breaches which do not relate to the purpose or spirit of the regulations.