Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

Advertising food to children is an area of significant public concern and debate. The rules are restrictive in order to ensure that food is advertised responsibly. Marketers are urged to advertise their products responsibly, exercise caution and be aware that adverse ASA rulings could bring the industry as a whole into disrepute. The Advertising Guidance note ‘Food and soft drink advertising to children’ provides a useful overview.

From a practical perspective, here are five important “don’ts” and one important “do” for creating responsible ads.

Use health and nutrition claims correctly

Claims referring to children's development and health are only acceptable if listed as authorised on the EU register.

The ASA ruled against a website which made the general health claim "HONEY GOODNESS" but did not include a specific authorised health claim (Halo Foods Ltd, 31 December 2014).

For a brief overview of the key points on advertising foods generally, please see "Food: Overview".

Do not place ads for HFSS products inappropriately

Ads for food/soft drink products that are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appear.  This means that ads that directly promote (or have the effect of promoting) HFSS products must not appear in ‘children’s media’ (i.e. media where under-16s are the main target audience) or other media where under-16s make up more than 25% of the audience. 

Marketers are expected to hold evidence to support their placement choices, for more information and links to relevant articles see ‘Food: HFSS Overview’.

Do not promote poor nutritional habits or unhealthy lifestyles

Ads should not condone or encourage attitudes associated with poor diets or unhealthy lifestyles; for example, skipping meals, a dislike of green vegetables, hiding consumption from parental figures, or suggesting that an inactive or sedentary lifestyle is preferable to physical activity.

An online game aimed at young children which took a while to play and condoned eating a large number of sweets whilst hiding this fact from their parents was found to breach the Code by irresponsibly encouraging poor nutritional habits and an unhealthy lifestyle in children. The ASA ruled that other, shorter, games on the website which only involved the collection of a few sweets were acceptable (Swizzels Matlow Ltd, 29 August 2012).

Ads which are likely to appeal to children may feature the product being consumed, provided consumption is not excessive and the ad does not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle, or disparage good dietary practice (Beverage Services Ltd, 26 September 2012, Kellogg Marketing and Sales Company (UK) Ltd t/a Kellogg, 7 May 2014, Cereal Partners UK, 7 May 2014).

Do not use licensed characters in HFSS ads where the content targets under 12s

In addition to the placement restrictions on HFSS ads, additional content restrictions apply where the ad directly targets pre-school or primary school children (under-12s) through the content.  In those circumstances, the use of licenced characters and celebrities popular with children is prohibited (Rule 15.15).

This prohibition does not apply to non-HFSS product ads or characters which are owned by the brand itself (“equity brand characters”).

Under a previous version of rule 15.15 where the prohibition applied to all food except fresh fruit and vegetables, a confectionary manufacturer’s website which had content, including interactive games, aimed at young children was found to breach the Code because it featured the licensed character Scooby Doo (Swizzels Matlow Ltd, 29 August 2012).

Marketers should be aware that when a licensed character is the predominant element of the content, it may be difficult to differentiate the targeting of the content from the character. As such, unless the content of the ad very clearly and unequivocally targets older children or adults there is risk that the inclusion of a character could be seen as both directly targeting the content at under-12s and also prohibited as a result.

Marketers should also note that although the restrictions apply when the content targets under-12s, they must not feature licenced characters or celebrities popular with children (meaning under-16s).

Do not feature promotions in HFSS ads where the content targets under 12s

Promotions are also prohibited in HFSS product ads that directly target pre-school or primary school children (under-12s) through the content (Rule 15.14).

In ads that don’t directly target under-12s through the content, promotions may be included but should not encourage children to eat or drink a product only to take advantage of the promotional offer. 

All marketing communications featuring a promotional offer must be prepared with a due sense of responsibility.

Do not exploit children’s credulity or encourage “pester power”

Children’s credulity or vulnerability must not be exploited in ads nor should they be exhorted to make purchases or ask their parents or other adults to make purchases for them.

An advergame app which used language with a persuasive and negative tone to imply that players would miss out on parts of its functionality, and would not be able to perform as well in the games unless they scanned a QR code, was found to exploit children’s credulity and vulnerability and was considered likely to make them feel inferior if they did not eat, buy or encourage their parents to buy the product (Weetabix Ltd, 13 February 2013).

See also Food: Health Claims, Food: HFSS Overview, Food: HFSS Product and Brand Advertising, Food:HFSS Media Placement and Children: Promotional Marketing.

Updated 29 June 2017

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