A pre-roll ad on YouTube for Walkers, seen on 12 April 2018, featured a man grabbing the hand of a colleague to suck Doritos crumbs off his fingers, and in another scene ripping the trousers off another man in order to sniff Doritos crumbs from the trousers. A voice-over concluded, “Doritos. For the bold”.
The ad was seen before a YouTube video reviewing new Nintendo Switch games.
The Obesity Health Alliance challenged whether the ad breached the Code because it was an ad for a product that was high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS product) that was directed at people under the age of 16 through the media or context in which it appeared.
Walkers Snacks Ltd said they had taken a range of steps to ensure that the ad was not targeted to children under the age of 16, using both age restrictions and interest based factors.
They had applied YouTube age targeting restrictions so that the ad would only be served to users who were logged into accounts with a self-reported age of 18 or over, or to users who were considered to be 18 or over according to YouTube’s demographic targeting tool. They said that YouTube’s demographic targeting tool inferred the age of users based on all the relevant information to which Google had access. In instances where Google did not have sufficient data on a user to confidently infer an age, or the information did not fit with established patterns, users were put into an “unknown” age bracket. Walkers Snacks said they had ensured that the ad was not targeted to anyone in that “unknown” bracket. They highlighted that they had been particularly cautious by targeting the ads to those aged 18 and over rather than those aged 16 and over.
YouTube videos were given a rating based on any sensitivities in their content (similar to the ratings system used for films). Walkers Snacks had excluded the ad from appearing before any videos rated as “Suitable for families” and “Suitable for all audiences”, which meant that the ad would not be served prior to any content which was deemed suitable for people of any age. They had not excluded the ratings “Suitable for younger teens” or “Suitable for teens”, but highlighted that did not mean the ad would be targeted to those videos, only that it could potentially be served prior to videos which had content that was suitable for teenagers.
Walkers Snacks had also applied two exclusion lists to the ad in order to minimise the risk of it being shown before videos that would have appeal to those aged under 16. Firstly, a general exclusion list of over 13,000 URLs comprising of channels, users and videos and secondly, a specific exclusion list of over 9,000 YouTube URLs comprising entirely of videos categorised as “U16 Appeal Videos”. The two exclusion lists together covered a very wide range of videos which would have appeal to those aged under 16, including for example Disney, Cartoon Network, Marvel Superheroes and Transformers videos.
Walkers Snacks said that YouTube videos were placed into one or more subject categories based on their content, and they had excluded the ad from appearing before videos in any subject categories which would be likely to have appeal to those under 16. That included, for example, categories such as “Comics & Animation”, “Games”, “Children’s Literature”, “Drawing and Colouring” and “Dress Up and Fashion Games”.
Walkers Snacks also ensured the ad was excluded from being embedded on third-party websites, meaning that the ad would not be shown before YouTube videos which were embedded onto third-party sites with particular appeal to those aged under 16.
With regard to the specific video the complainant saw the ad before, Walkers Snacks said that the video reviewed games, some of which contained adult themes and which had advisory ratings. They said the video therefore may not have been categorised as being of particular appeal to children or suitable for all ages.
Walkers Snacks also provided third-party data relating to the overall age profile of YouTube’s audience in January 2018, which showed that 6- to 17-year-olds made up less than 10% of YouTube’s audience worldwide.
Walkers Snacks said it was unfortunate that the ad had been viewed by someone aged under 16, but due to the low proportion of YouTube viewers who were under 16 and the comprehensive age and interest based targeting measures they had taken they felt they had demonstrated that they had taken reasonable steps to appropriately target the ad.
YouTube confirmed that the ad was served through AdWords, which was a self-administered system which provided customers with tools to enable them to appropriately target the audience for their ads. Under the terms and conditions agreed to by customers using AdWords it was the customer’s responsibility to abide by applicable laws and regulations, include the CAP Code. Their Community Guidelines and Advertising Policies were publicly available online.
The CAP Code required that HFSS product ads must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appeared. The ad featured Doritos crisps, an HFSS product, and was therefore an HFSS product ad for the purposes of the Code. The ASA considered that marketers should be able to demonstrate that they had taken reasonable steps to ensure that HFSS-product ads were directed at an audience aged 16 and over so as to minimise children’s exposure to them.
The ad appeared before a video on a channel which was dedicated to reviewing Nintendo Switch games. The videos featured adults discussing games in a conversational, low-key way and we considered the general tone and style was unlikely to be of particular appeal to under 16s. The reviews were of games of all ratings, including those which were rated as unsuitable for under-16s. Although we acknowledged the video, before which the ad appeared, would be of appeal to some under 16s, we considered it would not be of greater appeal to them than those aged 16 or over. We considered, therefore, that the video before which the ad was seen was not media that was specifically for children.
We considered that age-restricted ads on online platforms should not be targeted solely based on age data, because of younger users misreporting their age on social media or different people sharing the same device, and that advertisers should support that method of targeting by using interest based factors to help remove those aged under 16 years of age from the target audience of HFSS-product ads.
We considered that the proportion of under-16s on the platform would be relevant in determining the extent to which interest-based or other behavioural targeting would be needed in order to ensure that the ad was not directed at under-16s. For instance, on platforms popular with under-16s, it could be necessary for marketers to both select interest-based factors popular with adult audiences and de-select interest-based factors popular with under-16s. On the other hand, if an ad appeared in a medium that was used by hardly any under-16s, interest-based targeting might, in those circumstances, be unnecessary.
The available third-party data relating to YouTube users indicated that around 90% of users were aged 17 and over. We therefore acknowledged that, while YouTube was a medium that was used by under-16s, the data did not suggest that they made up a disproportionately high percentage of the platform's users.
Walkers Snacks had applied an age restriction which meant that the ad was only targeted to signed-in YouTube users whose reported age was 18 or over, and those whose inferred age was 18 or over. We noted that by targeting the ads to those aged 18 or over, Walkers Snacks had taken action to exclude at least some under-16s from the audience who had misreported their ages. We further noted they had excluded users whose inferred age was unknown from being targeted.
We reviewed Walkers Snacks’ approach to excluding from the audience YouTube users who might be under 16 through using interest-based and other factors. While they had not excluded videos which were rated as “Suitable for younger teens” or “Suitable for teens” we acknowledged that many videos which were likely to be viewed predominantly by adults might be given those ratings as well as videos which were intended for teenaged viewers. We considered they had taken a comprehensive approach to excluding the ad from being shown around videos which were directed at under-16s, by removing specific channels, videos and users, and excluding interest based factors which had greater appeal to under-16s than those aged 16 or over.
We understood from the complainant that the ad had been seen by an 8-year-old child who was not signed into YouTube, using a device used by both adults and children. We acknowledged that the actions taken by Walkers Snacks had not prevented that child from being served the ad. However, we considered on balance that, because YouTube was a medium primarily used by those aged 18 and over and Walkers Snacks had targeted the ad at users with a self-reported or inferred age of 18 and over, and they had used additional factors including significant interest-based targeting to further exclude under-16s from the target audience, Walkers Snacks had taken reasonable steps to appropriately target the ad. We concluded that the ad had not been directed at those under 16.
We investigated the ad under CAP Code (Edition 12) rule 15.18 15.18 HFSS product advertisements must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appear. No medium should be used to advertise HFSS products, if more than 25% of its audience is under 16 years of age. (HFSS product ad placement), but did not find it in breach.
No further action necessary.