Why does advertising need to be regulated? How much do ads influence children and young people? Should advertisers have the freedom to say whatever they want? These are some of the questions explored in a new resource “Ad:Check” that we have developed for schools to help enable children and young people to make a critical assessment of the ads they see and hear.

Advertising is a part of our culture. At its best it can entertain and inform. But it can also divide opinion. For example, do ads for ‘unhealthy’ foods add to the national obesity problem, do thin looking models contribute to negative body image, particularly amongst young women? Whatever your viewpoint on advertising it is a feature of our daily lives which is why we want young people to understand it better.

In recent years we have conducted research and held workshops with parents, young people and the wider public so they can tell us what they think about advertising. The findings have been surprising. Our research shows that 30% of young people (11-16 years) have been bothered by an ad in the last 12 months, with violent and sexual content, body image and charity ads most likely to be the source of distress.

As a responsible regulator we have to be sensitive to these concerns. Our overriding priority is to ensure that young people are protected from harmful or inappropriate ads. Indeed our work in this area reflects a political and public appetite to put the brakes on a perceived ‘commercialisation and sexualisation’ of childhood.

Few would argue against the fact that young people deserve protection. Reflecting their inexperience, both emotionally and as consumers, the rules in place are deliberately strict. But, rightly, the advertising rules and our decisions are also proportionate. Nor should our decisions be made in a vacuum. We should recognise, listen to and understand the views of those we seek to protect. And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that young people are legitimate consumers.

Ad:Check aims to encourage Key Stage 3 & 4 Citizenship, PSHE and English students to analyse ads, understand the rules that govern them and debate with their teacher and peers the topical and sometimes controversial issues surrounding advertising. We hope it will help children and young people to develop the emotional and critical ability they might need in order to understand advertising, as well as encourage them to raise any concerns they may have as responsible citizens about ads.

It is a flexible and easy-to-use resource which provides students with examples of real ads and ASA case studies. It takes a ‘big question’ approach, exploring issues around what is misleading, harmful or offensive. As part of its focus on prompting critical analysis the resource also asks students to develop an ad campaign of their own.

Advertising is a fascinating topic. We hope our resource will stimulate debate in schools across the country.

ASA Chairman, Lord Smith

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