Eight food and retail brands have been found to be in breach of advertising rules by serving ads for products high in fat, salt or sugar alongside videos on YouTube channels directed at children.
Asda, Kellogg, KFC, KP Snacks, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, McDonald’s and Pringles were detected in a "compliance sweep" using child avatars: programs that simulate the online profiles of children to identify ads served to actual children using the internet.
The research took place over a two-week monitoring period in the run-up to Christmas 2018 and covered 210 websites and 87 YouTube channels in non-logged-in environments.
Although the eight brands mentioned have been contacted by the Committee of Advertising Practice to take immediate action, the investigation as a whole found a high level of compliance. The Advertising Standards Authority said it found no evidence of HFSS advertisers actively targeting children or serving ads with content directed at children under 12 through the use of celebrities or licensed characters popular with children or promotions.
Of the 41,030 ads served to the ASA’s child avatars on general-interest and youth-interest sites in the two-week period, 2.3% were for HFSS products. But two-thirds of these were for products likely to be of little interest to children, such as ads for high-end cheese and condiments.
Of 39 websites clearly aimed at children, 26 did not serve a single HFSS ad. Across the remaining 13, only 43 out of 8,534 ads served – 0.5% – were for HFSS products.
On YouTube, however, the sweep picked up 490 ads for HFSS products across 55 channels aimed at children.
James Barge, director of public policy at ISBA, said it was "important to note" that the research did not find evidence of brands seeking to target children or of the misuse of celebrities or licensed characters. although he acknowledged that it did "highlight issues with some online platforms where advertising had appeared".
He said: "We support the ASA in seeking to strengthen their regulation of online advertising and would urge them to further understand the measures and exclusions responsible advertisers have in place and work with them to understand how they are being applied."
Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA, added: "Protecting children is one of our top priorities. The problematic ads we found were relatively few in number, compared to the total served, but we’ll take action in respect of any ad for high fat, salt or sugar food and soft drinks which is found to be directed inappropriately at children. We’ll be following up with similar compliance sweeps in the future."