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U.K. Bans Junk Food Ads Aimed at Under 16s

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The U.K. advertising watchdog has banned all junk food ads aimed at young people under 16, in a drive to get the marketing industry to play its part in tackling childhood obesity.

Ads and promotions for food and drink classed as high in fats, salt and sugar will be banned from all online destinations – including social media, video sharing and gaming channels – from July 2017.

The same rules have applied to TV ads since 2007, but the Advertising Standards Authority is responding to shifting media habits among young people -- and the marketing practices that target them across all devices -- as well as to increased concern in society about childhood obesity.

According to communications regulator Ofcom, young Brits aged 5 to 15 spend around 15 hours each week online – more than they spend watching TV.

The rules, which will also apply to magazines, billboards and cinema advertising for the first time, cover all media where under 16s make up 25% or more of the audience.

The new rules will be administered by the Advertising Standards Authority, which polices the U.K.'s self-regulatory system. To help figure out where the under-16s are, data from providers like Nielsen and ComScore will be used to determine audience profiles. The ASA reviews complaints about marketing practice, and failure to comply with the codes leads to the ad being very publicly banned.

Ad agencies have until July 2017 to ensure that their creative content and media planning strategies take these new rules into account. There will be a three-month transitional period for advertisers who can demonstrate to the ASA that media space was booked before December 2016.

James Best, chairman of the Committee of Advertising Practice, which writes the ASA codes, said in a statement, "Childhood obesity is a serious and complex issue and one that we're determined to play our part in tackling ... Our tough new rules are a clear demonstration that the ad industry is willing and ready to act on its responsibilities and puts the protection of children at the heart of its work."

Ian Twinn
Ian Twinn Credit: Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

A statement by the Committee of Advertising Practice claimed that the new restrictions will lead to a "major reduction" in the number of ads for food and drinks high in fats, salt and sugar that are seen by children.

However, Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, said in a statement, "The effect on the market will be minimal. It is not going to affect the big spenders who are buying against non-children advertising times. They will shift their spend into different media, avoiding children but still hoping to reach the parents."

Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association, whose members include marketers, agencies and media owners, said in a statement, "Regulation is important but we also know the effects of advertising are relatively small, so whether it's supporting parents with healthier choices, improving education or getting more people more active, let's now grab the opportunity to put our collective energy into tackling the big drivers of obesity."

The government's Department of Health nutrient profiling model is used to classify which products are high in fats, salt and sugar.