Parents' concern is natural, but online ads are policed vigorously to make sure children are protected.
Many parents are familiar with the occasional pang of anxiety about the content their children are viewing online. The days of the family gathering in the living room to watch TV together haven’t disappeared, but more of the media enjoyed by children and teenagers are consumed privately on smartphones and tablets. Since we can’t see what they can see, it’s natural to feel a certain concern. That applies to online advertising just as much as other content.
As a parent I understand this instinct, but politicians who suggest that online advertising is a wild west are just plain wrong. The UK Advertising Codes apply just as strictly online as to traditional media. Making sure online ads are responsible is taking up more and more of our time and resource. And we’re taking action proactively rather than waiting for complaints to come in.
Online advertising has been regulated by the ASA since the dawn of the internet. In 2011, our online remit was extended to include companies’ own advertising claims on their own websites and social media spaces. Since then, that subsection of online media alone has come to account for half of our regulation. 88% of the 7,009 ads amended or withdrawn by the ASA during 2017 were online ads (in whole or in part).
Importantly, online ads for age-restricted products - including gambling, alcohol and foods which are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) – need to follow the same strict content and placement rules as those in traditional media. They must be prepared in a way that’s socially responsible and which doesn’t appeal inappropriately to children or other vulnerable people. Crucially, ads for age-restricted products can’t be directed at children.
Let’s take a topical example. Last year, we introduced a strict ban on HFSS food ads in children’s online media, mirroring the strict standards already in place for TV. That means advertisers are banned from targeting children with HFSS ads across all non-broadcast media, including on children’s websites, apps, ‘advergames’ and social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
We monitor proactively whether companies are complying with the ban, as well as investigating complaints from the public, campaigning organisations and competitor companies. In the year since the ban, only a handful of cases of non-compliance have come to our attention. Last month we banned ads from Mondelez UK (Cadbury), Clowetta UK Ltd and Swizzels Matlow Ltd for failing to take sufficient care to avoid targeting children online. Those rulings are important, but the ads they censured are the exception to the generally good compliance that exists.
In assessing whether companies have done enough, we place a strict burden of proof on the advertiser. A recent change means advertisers must show they’ve used social media targeting tools on platforms such as Instagram or YouTube to direct ads away from users who are likely to be younger than they claim. For example, advertisers might choose to actively exclude platform users whose browsing history shows they are interested in certain singers, TV programmes or clothing brands of particular appeal to children. Under those tougher standards, simply filtering users according to self-declared birth date alone will be unlikely to be enough.
Our strict content rules apply to companies’ own ads on their own websites. Last year, the ASA took enforcement action against gambling operators who advertised games in unrestricted parts of their websites using content which had particular appeal to under-18s, specifically the use of cartoon imagery. Our ‘cease and desist’ order made it clear that no gambling ads with specific appeal to children can appear anywhere where adequate checks to verify a user is over 18 haven’t been undertaken. Operators amended the ads. The recent ruling on Coral’s use of cartoon imagery (“Rainbow Riches”, “Lucky Wizard”) is a further example of an ad banned for falling short.
Yes, the internet has changed the way information is shared and content is consumed, and of course protecting children online needs to be the top priority for regulators. But when it comes to advertising online, politicians shouldn’t underestimate how much is already being done – and with considerable effect.
This piece originally appeared in Politics Home on 18 July 2018.
Guy became Chief Executive of the ASA, the UK regulator of ads in all media, in 2009. Responsible for executing the ASA’s strategy to make UK ads responsible, he oversees all functions of the ASA system. Read more