The ASA has announced that it wants to build a “zero tolerance” approach to ads for age-restricted products and services appearing in media with a high child audience. But are they zeroing-in on the wrong target?

Under the UK's advertising code (CAP Code), advertisers placing age-restricted ads online are required to target their ads away from child audiences.  CAP also issued guidance on children and age-restricted ads online in 2017.

The ASA periodically carries out advertisement monitoring sweeps and has recently published the findings from its latest sweep, which it says has helped it identify and subsequently deal with age-restricted ads appearing in children’s media. However, is the ASA taking the right approach against the right people?


Over a three month period, using monitoring tools to capture ads served on a sample of more than 50 websites and YouTube channels attracting a disproportionately high child audience, the ASA:

  • identified a number of instances where the ad rules were broken
  • is taking follow-up action to contact the advertisers whose ads broke the rules to secure the removal of the problem ads; and
  • warned the advertisers to review and, as necessary, amend their practices to ensure they target future ads responsibly.

In summary, the ASA found that, overall, 159 age-restricted ads broke the advertising rules. In total, 35 advertisers placed age-restricted ads in 34 websites and five YouTube channels media aimed at or attracting a disproportionately large child audience.  The ASA has broken down the figures further by sector:

  • Gambling: 70 different betting ads from four gambling operators appeared on eight websites.
  • Alcohol: 10 different alcohol ads from one brand appeared on one website.
  • E-cigarettes and tobacco: 1 e-cigarette ad appeared on one website.
  • HFSS: 78 different HFSS ads from 29 advertisers appeared on 24 websites and 5 YouTube channels.

These figures may look worse than they are, and it’s important to keep a sense of proportion. The ASA accepts that many of the HFSS ads were technical breaches of the rules, which covered products such as butter, cooking sauces, nuts and seeds which are technically HFSS products but the ads are unlikely to appeal to children. It is also worth remembering that as far as we know, these and other sector ads were otherwise compliant with the CAP Code and do not appear to have been placed deliberately and may not have been placed in accordance with the advertiser's instructions.

Advertisers are at fault... right?

We know that advertisers are ultimately responsible for where their advertising ends up, but if the advertiser has done everything reasonable to ensure third parties target their ad appropriately, what more can they do, and it is right to keep bashing advertisers over the head?

It could be said that the media owners and media buyers responsible for placing these advertisements need to do better when it comes to ensuring ads are placed accurately and responsibly.

In my view, advertisers might be justified in feeling unfairly clobbered by the ASA on this issue, with the ASA holding them responsible for ads which appear where they should not because the ASA doesn’t have adequate powers to hold the platforms, media owners and media buyers directly responsible.

Advertisers usually act responsibly by instructing media buyers to place ads appropriately, and expressly instruct them to avoid channels and media which appeal to children. But when media buyers fail to follow the advertiser’s instructions, even if it’s due to a glitch in automated or programmatic buying, the advertiser is held responsible by the ASA, and is likely to receive an upheld ASA ruling against them and all the negative publicity that accompanies such a ruling.  

There is a good chance that the ASA is putting pressure on advertisers in the expectation that they in turn put pressure on media owners and media buyers, but is it proportionate or appropriate approach?  

My own view is that a fresh and more sophisticated approach is needed.

Looking ahead

The ASA plans to repeat this monitoring exercise quarterly over the next year.  It will report publicly on the results of the sweeps, the compliance action taken against repeat offenders, and share them with relevant industry groups.

With thanks to Helen Hart for her contribution to this article.