Regulating food advertising online

We live in a multi-media world, one in which we have instant access to information and entertainment via a range of devices from smart phones to tablets and laptops to internet connected TVs. This provides us with a huge range of choice as consumers. But clearly this also presents challenges, for parents, business and us as a regulator, in terms of how we ensure children are protected from inappropriate or harmful content.

So, in this age of fast developing and sophisticated media platforms how do we respond to concerns that children are being targeted with and seeing ads for less healthy food and drink products online when they aren’t subject to the same level of regulation that’s in place for TV ads?

With the radical changes in the media landscape, we know we can’t rest on our laurels. In February we, alongside CAP, announced that we were conducting further work to make sure that the regulation of food and soft drink advertising continued to be effective and proportionate, particularly when it comes to protecting children online. This work includes:

  • Commissioning a leading youth researcher (Dr Barbie Clarke) to conduct a comprehensive literature review of the impact of digital and online marketing of food and drink products to children;
  • Undertaking a proactive monitoring survey of food ads, with a focus online, to assess whether there are any problem areas, and
  • Taking action to bring advertising that breaks the rules into line.

CAP aims to report on the research findings later this summer and our monitoring work is scheduled for the end of 2014.


The online world presents new and innovative ways for advertisers to promote their products and services. But new technology and media platforms can still prompt existing concerns. For instance, there are debates about advergames (typically electronic games that are used to advertise a product, brand or an organization) and whether they’re suitable for children, particularly when it comes to food and drink advertising.

Advergames by food companies already have to stick to strict rules and we’ve banned those that promoted overeating. For example, we upheld a complaint from the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) that a ‘Cola Capers’ game on a confectionary manufacturer’s website irresponsibly encouraged poor nutritional habits and an unhealthy lifestyle in children. We also found that the use of cartoon characters popular with and targeted at primary-school children, to promote foods other than fresh fruit and vegetables was in breach of the rules. We will not hesitate to ban any others that take this approach.

On top of this, CAP published new guidance on advergames in 2012 which makes clear that ads should be obviously identifiable as such and that they should be prepared responsibly. In judging whether an advergame sticks to the rules, we take into account the context in which it is made available, any references to the product, brand or organisation in or around the game and the target audience.

We appreciate that evidence shows that children develop at different speeds. In earlier years of childhood, they can struggle to distinguish content from other forms of advertising, that’s why we have other rules to make sure ads aren’t harmful.

Our commitment

We’re committed to keeping on top of the issue, particularly as this involves the protection of children.

As a responsive and pro-active regulator, working alongside CAP, the evidence review we’ve commissioned will help inform our work in ensuring the rules as they apply online are proportionate and effective. We will, of course, consider whether it requires us to look again – but that will be in response to the evidence, and not in the absence of it.

We welcome debate, but achieving a sensible, proportionate and evidence based regulatory position should never be based on who can shout the loudest.

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