Man on call on bridge.

ASA New CAP guidance on children and age restricted ads online

Published on 12 June 2017

What steps must advertisers take to prevent children from seeing age-restricted ads? How far must “interest-based factors” be taken into account?

The background

According to Ofcom, YouTube is used by 73% of 8-11 year olds and 87% of 12-15s, and more than two-thirds of 12-15s have social media profiles. With children now forming such a large user base both for digital content and on social media, advertisers are under increasing pressure to ensure ads for age-restricted content are kept off children’s screens.

Alongside the more obvious age-restricted (18 or over) content (eg ads for alcohol and gambling), from 1 July 2017 new rules announced by the ASA last December will take effect, which will also ban ads targeted at under-16s for high fat, salt and sugar food and drink products.

The CAP Code prohibits directing age-restricted ads at under 16s/18s. Additionally, where children do see age-restricted ads, CAP’s strict content rules mean that the ad itself should not be “of particular appeal to children or young persons”.

The development

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) issued new guidance on 6 June 2017 on age-restricted ads online, which sets out the kind of steps CAP expects advertisers to take to prevent age-restricted ads from being seen by children.

The main thrust of the guidance is that advertisers should do more to use “interest-based factors” when targeting ads to reduce the possibility that children are exposed to marketing intended for an adult audience.

As a more general starting point, CAP advises advertisers to take reasonable steps to ensure age-restricted ads are not placed in media directed at or of particular appeal to those under 16/18. The ASA previously rejected a complaint against Carlsberg, who had partnered with a YouTube vlogger to run a prize promotion, where less than 25% of the channel’s subscribers were under 18. The ASA considered Carlsberg had used the “best demographic data available to them” when determining whether it was appropriate to place the ad on that channel.

However, in the new guidance, CAP suggests that relying on age verification may not always be enough. The guidance states that advertisers should “support their choice of demographic data with behavioural data that similarly biases the target audience, and excludes interests and behaviours very strongly associated with people in the restricted age category.”

When targeting promotions, advertisers will often have a variety of data available, including info given by users themselves or collected from their behaviours on their device. Age verification will only get you so far – children can inaccurately report their ages and different people can share the same device.

CAP’s guidance proposes that advertisers select or de-select “interest based factors” to help remove certain demographics from the likely audience. For example, a gambling advertiser may choose to target an ad at registered users aged 18+. Children who have misreported their age could be further filtered from this pool by, for example, excluding users who have also shown a strong interest in Peppa Pig videos.

Interestingly, the ASA recently reversed an earlier decision in which it had upheld a complaint that a betting ad featuring Iron Man was likely to be of particular appeal to children. The ad had been sent by email to age-verified 18+ customers only. Overturning its previous ruling, the ASA noted that the email had been targeted so that it was “extremely unlikely that anybody under 18 years of age would see the ad”. The email was contrasted with other media that is not directly targeted at children but to which they may still be exposed.

CAP notes that advertisers will be required to take more care where they are targeting audiences close to the restricted age profile, eg marketing an alcoholic drink to 18-23 year olds.

Why is this important?

CAP’s new guidance signals a pretty dramatic change in approach and one which will bite hardest on online platforms. To explain, advertisers seeking to market via online platforms inevitably have to rely on those platforms to be able to tell them who (and who is not) in a restricted age category based on “interest-based factors”. This means that it’s the platforms that may well now end up in the ASA’s crosshairs when it comes to 18+ ads being shown to kids. So the prospect of platforms being co-named in ASA adjudications has just taken a dangerous step forwards.

Any practical tips?

In light of the ASA’s increasingly tough stance on age-restricted ads, it’s clear that the ASA is looking ever more closely at the role of the online platforms in this space. Internal teams need to be warned that changes are afoot, and serious consideration should be given to how the business will respond (including from a tech perspective!).

Other developments to keep an eye on include:

• changes to the CAP Code in January 2018 that will ban the portrayal of anyone who is (or seems to be) under 18 in a sexualised way (unless aimed at preventing harm to children, eg in safe sex ads) and
• guidance published by CAP on the recognition of online ads by under-12s, which sets out how advertisers can improve ad labelling for children.