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Government consults on HFSS advertising

Published on 05 July 2019

What are the Government’s new proposals for advertising restrictions for High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS) products?

The background

On 18 March 2019, the Government launched a consultation on further advertising restrictions on TV and online for HFSS products. Essentially, the purpose of the consultation is to reduce children’s exposure to HFSS ads. It sets out a number of proposals for both broadcast and online advertising.

The current rules which govern children’s programming prevents ads which are aimed at promoting HFSS products to children. In addition, existing rules permit HFSS ads to be shown where 25% of the online audience is aged under-16. The Government does not wish to amend these existing regulations and any proposals taken forward from the consultation would be implemented alongside the current rules. 

The development

Broadcast consultation options

Option 1: Introduce a watershed on broadcast TV

Under this proposal, HFSS products would not be permitted to be advertised between the watershed hours of 05:30 to 21:00. As this would unfairly impact on channels that have low levels of child viewers, this proposal includes an exception for channels which have only 1% of the total children’s audience (around 90,000 children).

Option 2: Advertising restriction ladder

This proposal aims to incentivize companies to reformulate products or have healthier products on the market by having a ladder system to decide which products can and cannot be advertised in the watershed hours. The ladder would have three sections (whose thresholds could be redefined when necessary):

  • products in the top group would have complete advertising freedom
  • reformulated and healthier products would be given an advertising freedom
  • the bottom group would be prevented from advertising in the watershed hours.

Option 3: No watershed

This proposal would provide no further advertising restrictions for HFSS products

Online consultation options

Option 1: Introduce a watershed online

Similar to the broadcast proposal above, this would restrict online ads for HFSS products between the watershed hours of 05:30 to 21:00. This would apply to banner and video ads. However, the Government has called for opinions on how this may apply as they acknowledge that this might be difficult to enforce for some areas (such as ads that become viral and influencer marketing).

Option 2: Strengthen current targeting restrictions

Existing rules allow children to see HFSS product ads where less than 25% of the audience are children under the age of 16. The consultation proposes that the percentage of the audience under-16 should be lowered to 10%. The Government believes that whilst this would not debilitate the ability of advertisers to place ads online, it would reduce the number of children under-16 watching the ads by more than half.

The existing rules also allow advertisers discretion as to what evidence they can provide that children are not being subject to behaviourally-targeted ads. The consultation proposes to strengthen this rule by setting advertiser standards higher for providing evidence. For ads that are directed at audiences with similar demographics and browsing activity, this proposal would set out a specific list of sources of evidence, such as data provided or inferred from users, which advertisers must adduce to show that children are being excluded from behaviourally-targeted advertising. Where advertisers cannot show this evidence or evidence which proves that the audience was less than 10% children under-16, HFSS product ads would not be permitted.

Option 3: Mixed option, so different options for online sectors

For video-ads which are viewed in a similar way to broadcast ads, such as on Video On Demand Services, VSPs, YouTube, Facebook Video etc. there might be a higher risk of HFSS product ads being displaced. As a result, there are stronger calls for watershed prohibition for these types of ads. For other types of advertising, strengthening the current targeting restrictions as set out above would be more appropriate as they are viewed differently to broadcast advertising.

Why is this important?

The Government is attempting to reduce the number of HFSS product ads that children see both online and on TV. Proposals such as the 05:30 to 21:00 watershed could make placing HFSS product ads more expensive and less effective, as there will be less available time slots. The suggestion of the advertising ladder may result in companies having to reformulate their products or release more healthy products onto the market and the proposal to reform current targeting restrictions may mean that advertisers have to take further measures in order to prevent children from being exposed to behaviourally-targeted ads. 

Any practical tips?

If you are in any way involved in HFSS products or their advertising, engage in the debate! These are critical times for the food and drink industry and engaging with the Government now may help ensure a more balanced end result. Keep an eye out for any further developments and write a response to the consultation as the Government is keen to work across the industry in order to address the differences between types of ads on different media.

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