New restrictions banning the advertising of food and drink products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) in children’s non-broadcast media come into effect on 1 July.
The body responsible for writing the UK Advertising Code, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), is reminding food and drink businesses about the new rules, why they’re being brought in and where to get help and advice so as to avoid running into problems with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
What are the new rules?
The rules apply across all non-broadcast media including in print, cinema and, crucially, online and in social media.
- 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
This is a significant change and brings the non-broadcast rules in line with the restrictions already in place on TV. This will lead to a major reduction in the number of ads for HFSS food and drinks seen by children. And it will also mean ads for HFSS products will no longer be allowed to appear around TV-like content online, such as on video-sharing platforms or advergames, if they are directed at or likely to appeal particularly to children.
How do you define the age of a child?
The Advertising Code classifies a child as a person under-16. In addition to the HFSS restrictions that apply to ads in children’s media, an additional rule prohibits the use of promotions and licensed characters or celebrities in ads targeted through their content at under-12s.
Why were the rules introduced?
The rules are designed to help protect the health and wellbeing of children.
The new rules come in response to wider concerns in society about childhood obesity and the public health challenges it poses. The new rules also respond to shifting media habits amongst young people and evolving advertising techniques which have fundamentally changed children’s relationship with media and advertising. Research from Ofcom shows that young people aged 5-15 are spending around 15 hours each week online – overtaking time spent watching a TV set for the first time.
How do you classify a product as HFSS?
Products high in fat, salt or sugar are identified using the Department of Health nutrient profiling model, which compares energy, saturated fat, total sugar and sodium against fruit, vegetables and nut content, fibre and protein. When the scores for each are added up foods, scoring 4 or more points, and drinks, scoring 1 or more points, are classified as HFSS and are subject to advertising restrictions.
Where do we find the nutrient profiling model?
The Department of Health nutrient profiling model is available here. It includes detailed technical guidance on how the profiling works.
How do you know if under 16s make up over 25% of the audience?
The ASA will have primary regard to audience measurement data. It’s commonly available from data providers like Neilsen, ABC or Comscore. Media owners will also have their own proprietary data. If data is not available, the ASA will assess the content and context of the ad and the surrounding media to determine whether it’s likely to appeal particularly to children. If it does, it will be restricted. The ASA has been doing this for years with alcohol and gambling advertising.
Beyond that, CAP has recently published new guidance on children and age-restricted ads online. It is designed to help advertisers make the best use of a range of tools that allow them to better define and reach the audience they want to target through the selection and/or deselection of “online interests”. The guidance should help them to target legitimate audiences responsibly and exclude, to the best of their ability, the protected audience.
It says the ads have been banned, but aren't these voluntary codes of practice?
Non-broadcast advertising in the UK is regulated through a ‘self-regulatory’ system, which means the ad industry has voluntarily established and paid for its own regulation. But there is nothing voluntary about the rules. The UK Advertising Codes (non-broadcast and broadcast) are mandatory. Advertisers can’t choose whether they want to abide by them or not. Where an advertiser breaks the rules its ad will be banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the independent watchdog set up to administer the advertising rules on behalf of industry. In most instances following an ‘upheld’ ASA ruling an advertiser will agree to withdraw or amend its ad. On the rare occasions where an advertiser is unwilling to work with the ASA and stick to the rules the ASA can and will consider further sanctions. Those include: prohibiting media space to an advertiser until they bring their ads in line; mandatory pre-vetting before their ads will be accepted; removing their paid-search ads; placing its own ads in and around their search results highlighting their non-compliance; and, ultimately, referral to its legal backstop, Trading Standards, who can and will take statutory action including taking down websites, securing legal undertakings and prosecution leading to fines. That’s not the ASA or CAP’s preferred route; we’re here to work with advertisers and help them produce responsible ads.
Is advertising really the main driver of childhood obesity?
No. But advertising has been shown to influence children's immediate food preferences.
We can’t ignore the fact that the UK is facing a huge public health crisis due to persistent rates of obesity. While there are many factors that have an impact on childhood obesity, and available evidence shows that the effect of advertising on children’s food preferences is relatively small, particularly when compared to other factors like parental influences; we believe that even a very small positive impact from these new ad restrictions could play a meaningful role in reducing potential harms to children.
Where can I seek help and advice?
We’re committed to helping food and drink businesses stick to the rules and are on hand to help you get your non-broadcast ads right. Our Copy Advice team provide an expert, free and confidential service that we encourage you to take advantage of, (whatever stage your campaign is at), to check for and identify any potential problems.
We are also launching shortly a new online training module to help advertisers get to grips with the new HFSS rules. Sign-up to our news alerts to get the low-down.
Anything else I need to know?
Industry has played a key role and has a direct stake in these rules. Its response and buy-in to our public consultation played an important part in shaping the new restrictions. Once the rules kick-in, it’s crucial that advertisers maintain a clean bill of health. Health campaigners, Government and the ASA will all be monitoring the situation closely to see if the new rules are being followed. Getting your ads in order by 1 July will highlight that the ad industry is willing and ready to act on its responsibilities and puts the protection of children at the heart of its work.