Campaigners disappointed by ‘null conclusion’ of UK report on online ads to children

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

How much evidence will be enough to spur change on online advertising to children? Children's Food Campaign ask UK advertising powers that be
How much evidence will be enough to spur change on online advertising to children? Children's Food Campaign ask UK advertising powers that be

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The Children's Food Campaign has said it is disappointed that a UK report on advertising to children failed to bring digital marketing like ‘advergames’ in line with broadcasting rules.

The public health lobby group also criticised the dismissal of existing scientific evidence of the impact this digital medium may have on children’s food choices.

Malcolm Clark, Children's Food Campaign co-ordinator, told us that previous to the release of the Committee of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) report, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had “disingenuously”​ hinted​ that it would provide significant clarification on the definition and impact of online advertising to children, yet when the report itself was released​ last week he had been disappointed by its “null conclusion”​.

The NGO has called for all forms of advertisement regardless of medium to be subject to the same nutrient profiling standards as broadcast advertisement, with the age of the audience being estimated by methods appropriate to the channel.

Clark also said CAP and ASA should give a clear statement on how much evidence of the influence of digital advertising was needed to prompt change after the report urged caution when looking at existing data since many of the studies were lab-based as opposed to ‘real life’ models and therefore limited in their conclusions.

The British Heart Foundation (BHF), which has worked alongside the Children's Food Campaign on the issue, also criticised the report for failing to revise guidelines and “allowing advertisers to continue to target junk food marketing at children online”.

Seeking change

Mike Hobday, BHF policy director, said: “While we’re pleased the report acknowledged children struggle to differentiate persuasive advertising from harmless entertainment, we’re disappointed it has not taken stronger action to stop children being exposed to junk food adverts online.

“The recommendations leave the online sphere loosely regulated in comparison with TV and mean that advertisers can continue to target children every day with advertising and marketing specifically designed to get them eating unhealthy products.”  

children TV advertising

Advertising to children through TV has been regulated since 2007 by estimations of the proportion of children watching and based on the nutrient profile of the product, effectively banning products not meeting these nutrient standards during children’s TV slots. The BHF also wanted this rule to be extended to include family-time TV, demanding a nine o’clock watershed on ‘junk foods’ ads.  

Clark echoed this but added that more work was also needed on the existing regulations and ensuring that was monitored properly. The report said a monitoring survey would be conducted, yet Clark said this had also been promised last year. He said this was all part of the “Responsibility Deal narrative”​, which he said had shown voluntary moves were not enough to secure change. 

Slippery definitions 

Rules for non-broadcast advertising, including ads online and shown in cinemas, were extended in 2011 to ban things like the use of sports stars. However, this still does not include the same standards with regards to nutrient profiling. Both BHF and Children's Food Campaign say this mean advertisements that would not be allowed under the broadcasting rules were slipping through the net. Clark gave an example recently flagged to him by a parent of a chocolate cereal being shown before a children's film in a cinema. 

Clark said he counted all online games featuring the company’s name and funded by the company to be advertisement, albeit a entertaining form of this, since it secured firm’s valuable contact time with young consumers, boosted visibility and held associated good feelings. 

When is enough enough? 

He said the accumulation of scientific evidence was likely to be a tipping point for the debate. “What it all boils down to is that in 2007 Ofcom saw data that TV affects children in a certain way. So that’s why rules on TV were tightened. We believe the evidence of the influence of the digital world is now there.”

He said his campaigners were now working to gather further evidence of the impact.   

A copy of the report can be found HERE​.

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