Over a three week period in 2020, the ASA conducted an investigation which looked at whether age restricted ads were being targeted away from children. The focus of the investigation was to assess the distribution of ads for alcohol, gambling and high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products on websites and YouTube channels where adults comprise over 75% of the overall audience. Even though the audiences of such websites and YouTube channels consisted mainly of adults, the ASA wanted to determine whether advertisers were doing enough to ensure that the minority child audience were not served with any age restricted content.
The project used the latest avatar technology which created a number of child, adult, shared and neutral avatars (neutral meaning they had no browsing history to indicate their age). The avatars acted as laboratory proxies for their respective online audiences. Using the avatars, the ASA were able to identify trends in how these ads are being delivered to adult, child and/or age-unknown audience groups.
The project is summarised in this handy infographic.
Following an in-depth look at the data following the investigation, the ASA has now published their monitoring and enforcement report.
The report's key findings are as follows:
- Over the three week period, the ASA identified 248 Gambling ad impressions and 182 HFSS ad impressions served to the various avatars. (Extraordinarily, no alcohol ads were identified over the monitoring period.)
- In terms of media targeting, HFSS and Gambling advertisers were mostly successful in targeting their dynamically-served ads away from children’s media, to sites heavily weighted to adults (where adults comprise 75% or more of the audience).
- However, in terms of audience targeting, HFSS and Gambling ads were generally distributed evenly to Adult and Child Avatars within these environments. The distribution of dynamically-served ads did not obviously skew towards Adult Avatars and away from the Child Avatars as envisaged by CAP Guidance.
- The Report concludes by calling on marketers to make better use of audience and media targeting tools to minimise children’s exposure to dynamically served age-restricted ads. And, it calls on third parties involved in the distribution of these ads to ensure the data and modelling on which these tools rely are as accurate and effective as they can be.
Protecting children online has been one of main focuses of the ASA in recent times. This investigation operated alongside the ASA's year-long project to assess whether online advertisers are complying with the CAP Code requirement that adverts for certain products should not target children.
It is anticipated the report may trigger more prescriptive regulatory measures relating to dynamically-served age-restricted ads to further limit children's exposure to such ads in online media. For more on the CAP Code requirements relating to age-restricted ads, see Practice note, Digital marketing: an overview: Targeting for CAP Code compliance.