A couple of weeks ago, The Independent examined the type of ads sitting alongside the teenage-friendly video bloggers on YouTube. The journalist and documentary film-maker Chris Atkins began to investigate after noticing the predominance of McDonald’s and Coca-Cola spots before vlogs from Zoella and her boyfriend, Alfie Deyes. Atkins believes that, as such ads would not be allowed to run against content that is targeted at children on TV, they should not be shown before the sort of videos they lose whole evenings to on YouTube. But there are reasons for the distinction in the rules.
Online advertising is not as reminiscent of a late 19th-century Arizonan town as some detractors would have you believe. Brands are already prohibited from encouraging unhealthy lifestyles through their digital campaigns. The reason why there are more specific rules around the scheduling of TV ads is that the evidence suggests they are more persuasive. There is a greater need to protect people from them.
Zoella does not have an army of sales people trying to push ad slots ot unhealthy-food brands in a quest for cash
In February, the Committee of Advertising Practice warned brands to ensure that their online ads are immediately recognisable as commercial messages. But it did not recommend any changes in the rules around food and soft drinks (which the Zoella/Alfie campaigns did not breach). That’s despite commissioning Dr Barbie Clarke and her research agency to carry out a "comprehensive literature review" of the impact of food and drink brands’ online marketing on children.
The Advertising Standards Authority has to base its rules on evidence. After all, the stability of the whole system rests on balancing the demands and interests of the public, advertisers and media owners. And although the recent review concluded that no changes are needed right now, the issue is one CAP and the ASA continue to monitor. But is this enough to satisfy the campaigners? And are their concerns justified?
Despite what some might think, Zoella does not have an army of salespeople trying to push ad slots to unhealthy-food brands in some unstoppable quest for cash and world domination. Her pre-roll YouTube spots are bought in the same ways that all others are: either through a bidding system or as part of an advance package of slots. She could decide to block certain categories, such as food and drink, but has not done so. Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube, in contrast, prevents certain brands from advertising against its content.
Over the past few months, I have written about the growing appetite for having a more honest and responsible conversation about the effects of advertising. If it is not enough to stop at legal, honest and truthful, this could be a good practical example to kick the debate off with.