Brands found targeting junk food ads at children online

An investigation by the ad watchdog found brands including McDonald’s, Lidl and Marks & Spencer running ads for food high in fat, sugar or salt alongside videos on YouTube channels directed at children, although there is no suggestion the companies were actively targeting under-16s.

junk foodJunk food ads for brands including McDonald’s, Marks & Spencer and Asda were found to be appearing alongside videos on YouTube channels directed at children in an investigation by the ad watchdog.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) conducted a “compliance sweep” using new avatar technology that simulates the online profiles of children in order to identify which ads they are being served across the internet. In a two-week monitoring period in the run-up to Christmas 2018, the ASA captured information on online display ads that appeared on 210 websites and 87 YouTube channels.

That sweep found that 2.3% of the 41,030 ads served to child avatars were for products high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS). Companies are not allowed to target ads for HFSS products at children under the age of 16.

However, the ASA also found that, in general, brands were sticking to the ad rules on websites, with just 26 of the 39 websites clearly aimed at children not serving a single HFSS ad. Of the 13 remaining, just 43 of the ads served were for HFSS products – 0.5% of all ads served.

On top of that, some two-thirds of HFSS ads were for products unlikely to be of interest to children, for example ads for supermarkets or high-end cheese.

There does appear to be more of a problem with YouTube channels aimed at children, where a number of HFSS ads were found to be breaking the rules. Eight brands – Asda, Kellogg’s, KFC, KP Snacks, Lidl, M&S and Pringles – were found to be showing inappropriate ads to children, with 490 ads for HFSS products served on 55 of the 87 channels monitored.

These brands were contacted by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) to take immediate steps to ensure the ads identified no longer appeared and to provide information on the mechanisms they had in place to ensure ads are not incorrectly served in future. YouTube has also been contacted to avoid breaches of the rules in the future, while CAP will be reviewing its guidance and rolling out advice and training workshops for the industry.

On top of this sweep, the ASA also monitored online content from a selection of the top 50 UK food and soft drink brands on their websites and social media accounts where a log-in isn’t required. Again, it found brands generally complying with the rules and that in the instance where content was deemed likely to be problematic – a website for Pom Bear – the content was immediately removed once it had been flagged.

The ad industry has welcomed the investigation, highlighting that there was no evidence of brands deliberately trying to target children and that it will learn from issues around targeting online.

“At a time when the advertising of food high in fat, sugar and salt is high on the political agenda it is important to note that the ASA research did not find evidence of brands seeking to target children or the misuse of celebrities or licensed characters,” says James Barge, director of public policy at ISBA.

“We support the ASA in seeking to strengthen their regulation of online advertising and would urge them to further understand the measures and exclusions responsible advertisers have in place and work with them to understand how they are being applied.”

The work on HFSS advertising follows an investigation into gambling ads being targeted at children in which five brands were found to be breaking the ad rules. The ASA plans to follow up this work by extending it into logged-in environments, especially social media platforms, as it looks to take a more proactive role in monitoring and enforcing the ad regulations.

READ MORE: The ASA warns it needs more industry support to effectively regulate online ads

Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA, adds: “Protecting children is one of our top priorities. The problematic ads we found were relatively few in number, compared to the total served, but we’ll take action in respect of any ad for high fat, salt or sugar food and soft drinks which is found to be directed inappropriately at children. We’ll be following up with similar compliance sweeps in the future.”