High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS) Foods subject to online surveillance by ASA

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has earlier this month published the results of a compliance sweep to identify adverts for food and soft drink products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) which appeared on children's websites and YouTube channels. The ASA used new “Avatar” monitoring technology. Child Avatars are programmes that simulate the online profiles of children, in order to identify ads served to child profiles across the internet. 

The compliance sweep found that, in general, brands were sticking to the advertising rules when it comes to HFSS products on websites, but there was a problem on some children’s channels on YouTube, where a number of HFSS ads were found to have broken the rules.

Adverts for HFSS products appeared on 20 of the 21 YouTube channels included in the initial monitoring sample, which were aimed at children.  As the Avatars viewed related videos on these YouTube channels, the monitoring exercise identified a total of 490 adverts for HFSS products served alongside videos on 55 YouTube channels aimed at children.  The 490 HFSS adverts represented 2.3% of all adverts served on children’s YouTube channels for which there was data, and 91.9% of all HFSS ads served in children’s media during the monitoring exercise.

The monitoring exercise did not identify any clear evidence of HFSS advertisers actively targeting child Avatars, or serving ads which were directed, through their content, at children under 12 through use of celebrities or licenced characters popular with children or promotions.  

In addition, the monitoring found:

  • Over two-thirds of HFSS ads on websites and YouTube were for products likely to be of little interest to children e.g. ads for supermarkets, high-end cheese and condiments. 
  • 26 of the 39 websites clearly aimed at children did not serve a single ad for a HFSS product during the monitoring exercise.  The 13 remaining children’s websites served a total of 8,534 ads, 43 of which were for HFSS products – 0.5% of all ads served on those sites.
  • The monitoring captured information on ads appearing on 87 YouTube channels. 490 ads for HFSS products were served on 55 of the YouTube channels aimed at children.

The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) is the rule book for non-broacast adverts, sales promotions and direct marketing communications.
Cap has undertaken to: 

During the same two week period, the ASA also monitored openly-available online content from a selection of the 50 top UK food and soft drink brands. The monitoring covered content posted on the brands’ official websites and social media accounts, which was visible to non-logged-in users. It did not include paid advertising on the social media platforms.

The social media monitoring found that the brands generally complied with the advertising rules.

A follow-up Avatar monitoring and enforcement exercises are now planned by the ASA, including extending this work to logged-in environments, especially logged-in social media platforms.

Summary

It is important that food brands with HFSS foods need to carefully document and implement internal mechanisms to ensure their adverts are not served inappropriately or in breach of the codes. These mechanisms should take into account the different formats of the online platforms to be used and implement measures to reduce the exposure risk where adverts are subject to age restrictions.

It should be noted that this sweep will be re-run by the ASA and in addition these investigations will now also target logged-in social media platforms.

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