Collaborating with online platforms to lift the lid on alcohol ad targeting in social media
We have published findings from a landmark project, in which we collaborated with five major platforms popular with children, to identify trends in the targeting of ads by alcohol brands in logged-in social media.     

This is the latest of several reports which seek to minimise children’s exposure to age- restricted ads and forms part of the ASA’s ongoing commitment to proactively protect children by having More Impact Online. In this case, we focussed on children falsely registered as, or incorrectly inferred to be, 18 or older on social media.

Unlike our previous reports, which used tech-based monitoring tools to identify and tackle age-restricted ads in children’s websites and YouTube channels, this project is a world’s first in working with platforms to lift the lid on alcohol brand’s targeting practices in social media.

Between 1 February 2020 and 31 March 2020, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube submitted brand-anonymised targeting data to the ASA relating to over 2,000 alcohol campaigns run on these platforms.

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We identified several incidences of good practices. For example, several alcohol campaigns targeted people who were 25+, minimising the possibility of reaching child account holders. But, we found that some alcohol brands could and should have done more to minimise the possibility of their ads being delivered to children.

Overall, we identified eight key insights on targeting practices, including the following:

  • A handful of ad campaigns did not appear to use any age targeting at all. This was very concerning and totally at odds with the letter and spirit of the UK advertising rules and guidance.
  • For the majority that selected an age 18+ audience, many didn’t select any ‘interests’ options to give greater confidence in reaching an adult, rather than a child.
  • We saw limited evidence of advertisers actively barring their ads from being targeted to audience groups that have interests in topics and themes very strongly associated with under 18s.

Specifically, we assessed how alcohol brands targeted their ads based on age and audiences’ online interests to see if the selections made were in line with Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidance, which cautions advertisers of age-restricted ads from relying on age-range targeting options only. This effectively requires them to make ‘interests’ selections to ensure their ads are targeted to an adult audience and away from children.

We will draw the findings of this report to the attention of the alcohol industry, praising good practice where we saw it, but telling it to more strictly observe the guidance.

We’re able to reveal these insights due to the fact that platforms, which play an important role in children’s lives, hold a unique repository of data on brands’ targeting practices, which they anonymised and agreed to share with us.

Platforms take a range of steps to age-verify their users. Ofcom research indicates, however, that a significant minority of children are registered on social media with a false date of birth, with the likelihood that some of these children will be registered as being 18+.

By sharing the anonymised data with us, the platforms helped us uncover important insights into the extent to which alcohol brands are using the tools available to them (which differ from platform-to-platform) to target their ads away from these children.

Importantly, the report does not identify if alcohol ads were ultimately delivered to the social media accounts of children, because we do not know if any of the brands used other data, e.g. their own first party data, to lessen the possibility of their ads being delivered to them.

We are now conducting a follow-up monitoring and enforcement project, which will work with a nationally-representative group of around 100 children to identify whether, in reality, they receive age-restricted ads in their social media accounts.  

Read the report now.

Advertising Standards Authority Chief Executive, Guy Parker said:

“Thanks to the support of major online platforms, we’ve revealed unique insights on alcohol brands targeting practices in social media. This partnership has helped us offer specific advice to alcohol advertisers on how they can improve their practices. We now expect to see brands take on this advice to minimise the possibility of their ads being delivered to children."

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