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ASA rejects complaint that HFSS ad was directly aimed at school children - Cadbury

Published on 15 October 2019

When will an ad which markets HFSS products be considered to be directly aimed at pre-school or primary school children?

The key takeaway

Even if an HFSS ad could be seen to appeal to children, the ASA will consider the overall tone of the ad to determine whether it is directly aimed at children

The ad campaign

In November 2018 Mondelez UK Ltd ran a Christmas ad campaign for Cadbury chocolate which comprised a TV ad, a YouTube ad and a cinema ad. Each of these ads depicted people wearing Santa masks secretly leaving chocolate for other people and included a voice-over which referred to Cadbury’s “biggest Secret Santa ever”, suggesting that Cadbury was running a Secret Santa themed campaign in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The campaign featured two promotions: pop-up stalls where consumers could get free chocolate to send to other people and a supermarket gift-with-purchase promotion.

The response

The campaign received a complaint from the Children’s Food Campaign (Sustain), who stated that the ads were HFSS product ads which were targeted directly at pre-school or primary school children and contained a promotional offer, in contravention of ASA rules which state that HFSS products which target their content directly at pre-school or primary school children must not feature promotional offers.

In response, Cadbury said that the ads were intended to remind audiences that giving chocolate as a gift has been a longstanding Christmas tradition.  Furthermore, in relation to Sustain’s suggestion that the ads contained a promotional offer, Cadbury acknowledged that the ads directed consumers to the Cadbury website, which referenced the promotions.  The site referred to a free sampling activity whereby people over the age of 16 could visit a pop-up stall to pick up a chocolate bar and send it to someone for free and also a supermarket promotion that offered consumers over the age of 18 a free gift with the purchase of Cadbury products, as well as the opportunity to send any products purchased to someone else as a “Secret Santa”. However, they did not consider that the ads themselves included or referred to a promotional offering.  Cadbury also argued that the overall look and feel of the ads were aimed at an older audience. For example, they featured a version of the Beatles song “Do you Want to Know a Secret”, which Cadbury maintained would only appeal to an older audience.

Clearcast did not consider that the ads were directly targeted at pre-school or primary school children. Specifically, they drew attention to the fact that the ads featured on-screen text which said “age restrictions apply” and also said the call to join the “biggest Secret Santa ever” did not state that children should do so.  The Cinema Advertising Association (CAA) also felt that the ads were not directly targeted at pre-school or primary school children, and instead were targeted either at the parents or guardians of these children, or older children. The CAA referred to the fact that the only information concerning the promotions was the on-screen text referencing the terms and conditions and the age restrictions which applied. The CAA said that this text was likely to be read only by those older than primary school age.


The ASA believed that the ad campaign featured a promotional offer because the ads promoted both the promotional and non-promotional aspects of the campaign and because both aspects were branded under the same theme.  However, the ASA also decided that the ads were not targeted directly at pre-school or primary school children. Whilst they acknowledged that the depiction of someone wearing a Santa mask secretly leaving chocolate as a gift for someone would appeal to children of this age, they also considered that this would appeal to older children and adults too. Furthermore, the ASA believed that the overall tone of the ads was understated and more likely to appeal to adults than children, particularly in light of the Beatles song that was featured.

Why is this important?

It's clear that even if an ad marketing HFSS products features or would appeal to young children, the ASA will consider the wider context of the ad and its overall tone when deciding whether or not it complies with advertising rules. 

Any practical tips?

Companies that wish to market their HFSS products by running ad campaigns that feature or could appeal to pre-school or primary school children and also contain a promotional offer need to strike the right balance between appealing to young children and older children or adults.  As long as the ads target and appeal to older children and adults as much as to younger children, they're unlikely to breach the CAP Code.