The new rules on junk food ads: What marketers need to know

The new ASA rules, which come into force tomorrow (1 July), will ban ads for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products in all children’s media including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

unhealthy food ad rules

Food and drink brands such as Coca-Cola will have to “take greater care with their marketing”, as tougher rules come into place around how they can advertise to under-16s.

The new rules come into effect tomorrow (1 July), and apply to all media that targets under-16s. The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) argues it “will mean a major reduction in the number of ads children see for high in fat salt and sugar (HFSS) products”.

They reflect restrictions already in place on TV, and will apply to children’s non-broadcast media including print, posters, cinema, online, advergames and in social media. Crucially, ads for HFFS products will no longer be allowed to appear around TV-like content online, such as video-sharing platforms such as YouTube, if it is directed at children.

In summary, the new rules state:

  • Ads that directly or indirectly promote an HFSS product cannot appear in children’s media.
  • Ads for HFSS products cannot appear in other media where children make up over 25% of the audience.
  • If the content targets under-12s, ads for HFSS products will not be allowed to use promotions, licensed characters and celebrities popular with children; advertisers may now use those techniques to better promote healthier options.
  • The Department of Health nutrient profiling model will be used to classify which products are HFSS.

During a breakfast meeting last month, CAP said the new rules also apply to all company branding that is synonymous with HFSS products. As a result, it said “Coca-Cola might have a hard time”.

“Coca-Cola is the company brand but also their [HFSS] product’s brand. If it just uses Diet Coke branding or Coke Zero branding, it’s a non-HFSS product ad however,” said Emma Smith, copy advice executive at CAP.

When asked by Marketing Week if Coca-Cola will still be able to use the red disk in its advertising, Smith said it depends on the context.

“They can use Coke and the red disk if they’re promoting non-HFSS variants, like Coke Zero. With the disk alone, it’s up to the ASA to decide whether that would promote a HFSS product, as it’s so iconic. It would for the brand to argue and provide evidence that now they’ve had such popularity with non-HFSS options that the disk refers to a range and not just Classic Coke,” she explained.

A Coca-Cola spokesperson told Marketing Week in response: “We work hard to ensure all of our advertising complies with the relevant rules and regulations. In addition to this, we have a long-standing global responsible marketing policy in place and as part of that we don’t market any of our drinks to under-12s. In the UK we go even further and we don’t target the advertising of any of our drinks to children under 16.”

The industry responds

CAP says the new rules have come in response to changing media habits among young people, with research showing that youngsters aged five to 15 are spending around 15 hours each week online – overtaking time spent watching a TV set.

It also responds to wider concerns in society about childhood obesity and what part the advertising industry can play in helping to change children’s relationship with less healthy foods.

The initial response from the industry has been positive. The Food and Drink federation (FDF) says it announced its backing for major changes to the way food and drink is advertised two years ago, based on its belief these strict rules should not just apply to TV advertising.

“HFSS food and drink ads have long been banned on children’s TV, with under-16s today seeing far fewer of these ads than in recent years. As young people move away from traditional media towards new and social media, we feel it’s important that ad rules keep up with this change,” says Ian Wright, director general at the Food and Drink Federation.

“The changes are designed to protect children, one of the core principles of our industry’s self-regulatory system, and the IPA supports them,” adds Richard Lindsay, IPA director of legal and public affairs.

But some have argued these rules do not go far enough. Action on Sugar says while it welcomes the news that there will no longer be any ads promoting unhealthy food and drink on social media and gaming channels that are aimed at children, it believes it still needs to “go further”.

“They currently do not manage exposure to these adverts during popular family programmes such as the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent and therefore, in the first instance, should be extended to a 9pm watershed. Today’s ban is just one of the many steps required to help prevent millions of UK citizens from becoming obese, developing type two diabetes or high blood pressure. The Prime Minister must now put the nation’s health first,” concludes Jenny Rosborough, nutritionist and campaign manager at Action on Sugar.