Last week, the Committee of Advertising Practice published updated guidance for non-broadcast advertisers about responsible targeting of online, age-restricted ads. It updates previous guidance from 2021 and aims to help regulation catch up with the increasing popularity of digital media. It includes new principles-based checklists to help advertisers and their agencies to limit children's and young people’s exposure to age-restricted ads.  The checklists cover media choice, age-based targeting and performance monitoring.

The CAP Code sets out rules for age-restricted marketing communications: they must not be directed at children (under 16s) or young people (16-17). Furthermore, age-restricted marketing communications should not appear alongside media where children or young people make up more than 25% of the audience. 

These rules have three key implications for different approaches to ad placement: 

  • No age-restricted ads should appear in or around media obviously directed at the protected age category irrespective of the method of targeting. 
  • For untargeted advertising, marketers must not place ads alongside media where the protected age category is likely to make up more than 25% of the audience.
  • Where marketing communications are directed at audiences based on data held by the marketer, media owner and/or other third party, targeting measures must be used to minimise the likelihood of those in the protected age category of receiving them. 

It is important to remember that it is the marketer’s responsibility to satisfy itself that the targeting restrictions have been complied with before the ad is placed. A marketer will not get far with the ASA if it argues that it is not at fault because intermediaries or affiliates (eg media and digital agencies) have failed to target or direct a marketing communication appropriately.

The aim of the guidance is to support all parties involved in marketing, so that they can show that they have taken adequate steps to limit the exposure of age-restricted marketing communications to children. As mentioned above, the CAP Code places responsibility for compliance directly with the marketer. If the ASA investigates a complaint, it will assess the marketer’s placement and targeting decisions about the selection of the media or the context in which it appeared. 

Marketers are required to demonstrate that they have considered requirements of relevant media placement restriction for each part of their campaign. How the ASA looks at cases will depend on the context in which users are likely to see the ad.  It provides the following examples: 

  • Paid-for video sharing platform ad – assessed based on video audience data and/or specific channel it appeared on,
  • Paid-for social media influencer post – assessed based on that follower’s accounts (all social media) and/or subscribers.

Marketers are required to maintain records to account for their targeting investigations. Marketers should be able to demonstrate steps taken to appropriately limit exposure of the ad to the protected age group. CAP also suggests that advertisers encourage their partners, such as agencies and influencers, to be more aware of the requirements and maintain their own records. In the past the ASA has not upheld complaints because the marketers were able to demonstrate they'd followed clear rules on their targeting, so keeping clear records can pay dividends.

To avoid breaching the Code’s requirements on media for children or children and young people, marketers are strongly advised to: 

  • identify categories targeted at, or commissioned for the protected age group within the chosen online environment;
  • exclude such media from their ad placements when they have direct control over where ads appear; and/or 
  • use the available ad tech tools to ensure age-restricted ads are not placed alongside media intended for the protected age group.

CAP acknowledges that this is just the starting point. This is because the accuracy of the data is not always conclusive. For example, younger users misreport their age, multiple users can share a single device, and less data is collected about users who have not logged in. As a result, CAP advises that targeting solely based on age data is unlikely to satisfy media placement requirements. This is because a child who misreports age is likely to remain interested in content designed for their actual age. 

Therefore marketers need to use other strategies as well, such as targeting based on interests (for example, a 5 year old is unlikely to be interested in washing machines, but will be probably be more interested in teddy bears).  It is also possible that as people find it easier to reject cookies due to the increasing use of a "reject all" button, there will be less data on which advertisers can base their targeting. Overall, the profile of interest-based factors selected or deselected should clearly favour adults over the protected age group.

Next steps

The ASA will shortly be publishing research findings of children’s real-world exposure to age-restricted ads online. If these findings suggest more may have been done to reduce the likelihood of children being exposed to age-restricted ads, the ASA will follow up with the relevant advertisers to highlight the checklists in the new guidance.

Take aways

The guidance contains useful checklists and examples. In summary, if you are advertising age-restricted products online, you need to target your advertising carefully to avoid inadvertently marketing them to children or young people.  This means using available data and not assuming that children are honest about their age.  You also need to keep careful records and keep an eye on what your partners are doing. If you need assistance with complying with the new guidance, we can help!