Age Restriction Guidance for Social Media Advertising: re HFSS food and alcohol

The CAP code (UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing) specifically extends to online advertising.  There are general overall requirements, for example,  if there is an agreement with a celebrity to promote a product then this would be considered a marketing communication and require the addition of “#ad” to demonstrate this.   There are also specific restrictions that apply to foods that are considered high in fat salt or sugar (HFSS) according to the Department of Health nutrient profiling model, i.e. adverts for HFSS products will not be able to use promotions, licensed characters and celebrities popular with children.  Also, alcohol has overall restrictions i.e. adverts for alcohol should not be targeted at people under 18 and should not imply, condone or encourage immoderate, irresponsible or anti-social drinking.  Packaging and in-store materials are not within the remit of the Code.

In addition to this, there are restrictions to the age groups that can have ads targeted at them for these products. There have been some interesting Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudications this summer giving guidance on how social media advertising should best be targeted to comply with their respective age restrictions

The code requires:

  • High in Fat, Salt or Sugar foods (HFSS) ads must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appeared. No medium should be used to advertise HFSS products if more than 25% of its audience was under the age of 16.
  • Alcohol ads must not be directed at people under 18 through the selection of media or the context in which they appeared.

Social media platforms were considered in context, based on the specific ways in which consumers interacted with them, the targeting tools available when posting non-paid for content, and the data available relating to the age profile of the audiences.

  • YouTube video: Vloggers will be able to see the proportion of their UK subscriber base and users who view videos while logged in as registered as being under 18. The ASA understood that many people used YouTube while not logged in, however where there is no reason to contradict the vloggers data the ASA is likely to assume no significant difference between the demographic profile of users viewing the videos while not logged in and the logged in or subscribed viewers.
  • Instagram:The ASA considered that consumers were unlikely to use Instagram or interact with the Instagram pages of individuals or businesses unless they were signed in to their Instagram account. In relation to non-paid for posts, it would not be possible to utilise the age restrictions or interest based targeting available on Instagram for paid-for ads and therefore targeting via an appropriate user is important.
  • Twitter: Tweets are seen by followers and in the feeds of any followers or Twitter users who had either liked or retweeted the posts. Non-paid for posts, mean advertisers would not be able to utilise the age restrictions or interest based targeting available on Twitter for paid-for ads. If the age demographic break down for Twitter followers is not available then advertisers should use the most robust demographic data available to them (eg that relate to UK subscribers/viewers of the YouTube channel and worldwide followers on Instagram, if used as well,) when determining whether it was appropriate to place the ads in an individual Twitter feed. Twitter’s overall demographic data showed that between 81% and 91% of UK Twitter users were aged 18 and over.
  • Facebook: The ASA has stated business have three key tools available to them to restrict the audience of their page and individual posts, and to target posts to specific groups.
  1. Advertisers were able to set age restrictions to limit who could see and like their Facebook page, based on the registered age of the Facebook user.
  2. When posting content on Facebook, advertisers were able to restrict the audience of a post by age, again based on the registered age of the Facebook user.
  3. Advertisers were able to target their posts to the Newsfeeds of certain groups of people based on their interests (although that did not prevent people outside those interest-based groups from seeing the post on the advertiser’s own Facebook page).

Some specific points to remember when using social media to advertise HFSS food or alcohol is are:

HFSS foods

Reasonable steps should be taken to target age-restricted ads appropriately:  Are ad’s ‘pushed out’ to newsfeeds of facebook users who had liked or followed the page? Are posts visible to the friends of those who liked or shared the posts? Do ads encourage liking and sharing? If a Facebook page related specifically to a HFSS product advertisers should have used the tools available to them to prevent Facebook users who were registered as under 16 from viewing the Facebook page.  However, even if ads were directed to an adult audience if their ultimate content was designed to appeal to and be used by a child under 16 years of age i.e. a storybook/activity pack, albeit provided to them by an intermediary adult, this has been similarly held to be advertising of HFSS foods ‘directed’ at children.


Reasonable steps must be taken by advertisers to ensure the appropriate targeting of the ad to an audience aged 18 and over; this includes interest-based factors as well as age data.  It is accepted that advertisers could not be expected to guarantee that all under 18s would not see the ad.

The ASA stated that age-restricted ads on online platforms should not only target audiences based on age data, but because of younger users misreporting their age / different people sharing the same device, advertisers should additionally target users by interest-based factors, to help remove those aged under 18 or 16 years from a target audience.  The proportion of under-18s 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-18s.

Keyword targeting may be  used to identify users registered as 18 or over who had recently tweeted or searched. These keywords should substantiate an 18 and over interest. i.e.  keywords “uni”, “fresher” or “fresher’s” in context i.e. during fresher’s week, meant those terms were likely to be tweeted and searched for predominantly by those currently in their first year of university, of whom 99% were aged 18 and over in the UK.  Some interest based factors can have too much of a broad appeal i.e. snack foods, music, entertainment and music festivals,  as these interests are likely to include children under the ages of 16 and 18, as well as older children and adults. This will therefore be insufficient, particularly, if the advertiser  had also not used interest based factors to exclude groups of people more likely to be under 16 or 18 from their target audience.  However, external data/factors can be used to corroborate the registered ages of the targeted group i.e.  a store loyalty card or a Visa card which required them to be aged 18 or older.

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