The ASA is as hot as freshly baked biscuits on ads for HFSS products likely to catch the eye of children, especially where there is a promotional offer involved.

So it is a rare thing to find an ad for an HFSS product sanctioned for something other than breach of HFSS ad rules, which is exactly what we have with this morning’s ruling against biscuit manufacturer Unisnacks.

Unisnacks ran a prize promotion which required consumers to collect “Free Bubble Stickers” for a chance to win a cash prize. The first 250 participants to collect 50 different stickers would each get £50. The promotion was advertised on the promoter's website and on Facebook.

According to the CAP Code, ads for HFSS products (High in Fat, Salt and Sugar):

(i) that are targeted through their content directly at pre-school or primary school children must not include a promotional offer; and

(ii) must not be directed at people under 16 through the selection of media or the context in which they appear. No medium should be used to advertise HFSS products, if more than 25% of its audience is under 16 years of age.

More generally, the CAP Code provides that food-related promotions must not create a sense of urgency or encourage excessive consumption.

One complainant (yes, it only takes one!) complained that the ads were targeted through their content at pre-school and primary school children. They also argued that the ads encouraged irresponsible consumption and the purchase of excessive quantities of food.

Interestingly, the ASA didn’t uphold the complaint that the ads breached HFSS rules. Whilst the ads would have appealed to children, primarily because of the dancing cartoon pandas, bright colours and “fun” references, they said the tone and wording of the ads, including the detailed rules of the promotion, were more directed towards adults. Given that any promotion generally requires a clear set of terms and conditions, the drier, “fun-free” wording you normally find in T&Cs is naturally more adult-focused, so it’s a little surprising that this element was factored into the overall assessment. In any case, the ASA also made the point that Facebook users must be at least 13, which is older than pre-school and primary school age.

In any case, Unisnacks wasn’t so lucky when it came to the more general rules around excessive consumption. The promotion required consumers to buy lots of biscuits, within the fixed period of the promotion, in order to amass a collection of no less than 50 stickers. Clearly there would be doubles, so, as the ASA noted, the consumer would need to collect quite a few more than 50 stickers in total – and tuck away plenty more biscuits in the process.

For this reason, the ASA upheld on the excessive consumption point. Here, Unisnacks were undone by the fact that, to win a prize, consumers would have to consume lots of product in a reasonably short period of time. Might it have been different if the 50 stickers didn’t need to be unique? Or only 20 were required? Or if the promotion period was longer? 

Who knows, but token collection promotions linked to food products are fairly common and they can usually be run in a way that complies with the ad codes. As this ruling shows, however, advertisers need to think very carefully in advance about the mechanic of the promotion and, in particular, how it will impact on participant behaviour, especially if they want to avoid a black eye (or two) from the ASA.