ASA issues guidance on HFSS media placement

Published on 20 December 2018

How can ads avoid falling foul of the CAP Code’s HFSS restrictions?

The background

Under CAP 15.18, HFSS ads must not be directed at under-16s through the selection of media or the context in which they appear and no medium with an audience that consists of more than 25% of under-16s should be used to advertise HFSS products.

On 3 August 2018 the ASA issued “Food: HFSS Media Placement” (the Guidance) as a guide for advertisers on how to stay compliant with CAP 15.18.

Responsible targeting

The Guidance lists two main methods for targeting marketing communication, and explains how both can be used to ensure the ad reaches the correct audience.

The first is based on audience composition in which the ad appears.  When placing an ad, marketers will need to ensure that they have a good picture of the composition of the audience.  Robust, specific audience measurement is best practice.  However if this is not available then general data can be acceptable, although this is a riskier approach.

The second method is using data to include or exclude individuals on the basis of their age, or other relevant criteria.  If using data to create a mailing list, marketers must be able to demonstrate they have taken all reasonable steps to exclude under-16s.  In some situations age specific data may not be available.  In these circumstances age can be inferred from the interests and interactions of the individual. 

Website content

Marketers must ensure they have a clear understanding of the audience composition of the website before placing HFSS ads.  Best practice would be to hold data demonstrating that no more than 25% of the website visitors are under-16s.

The Guidance also stresses that, even if less than 25% of the audience is under-16s, CAP 15.18 can still be breached if the ad is designed for children.  In the recent Cadbury ASA ruling, the material had clearly been produced for children, and given that it was downloadable content it was likely that it would end up being given to children.  Therefore this was considered to be directly targeting children. 

Social media

It is expected that marketers will use all tools available to them to prevent under-16s from seeing the ad.  This includes the use of internet based targeting tools.  If these tools are available then the 25% targeting rule would not apply, as the ad could be sent to a defined set of users and avoid under-16s completely.

In a recent ASA ruling, Walkers avoided falling foul of CAP 15.18 by only targeting social media users who had an independent store loyalty card or visa card, and were therefore independently verified as over-18s.

The Guidance also notes that influencers will be expected to use these tools as well to ensure that any HFSS posts/ads are not targeted at children. 


If an app has considerable appeal to children, then simply relying on age-gating will not be enough, given that these can be easily bypassed.  As with other forms of untargeted media, marketers will need to be able to demonstrate that no more that 25% of the app users are under-16s.

In a recent ASA decision, the Squashies World app breached CAP 15.18 as the app had particular appeal to under-16s.  The only tool used was age-gating and there was no data available to show the audience composition.

Is the content relevant?

The Guidance notes that the content is a contributing factor when the ASA assesses the likelihood of whether an audience for an ad was appropriate.  The more the ad is likely to appeal to children, the more likely that the ASA will expect there to be clear data that the audience composition does not have greater than 25% under-16s.

Why is this important?

HFSS advertising remains a (very) hot topic.  This Guidance serves as an important reminder to marketers on best practices when creating HFSS ads.  Given the large volume of HFSS rulings in recent months, it is clear that the ASA are taking a strict approach, so the Guidance should be closely followed.

Any practical tips?

When creating an HFSS ad that may appeal to children, advertisers should ensure that robust audience data is available in case of an ASA complaint.  They should also ensure that they are using all available technology to block under-16s from being able to see HFSS ads on social media, websites, etc.

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