By ensuring alcohol, gambling and other age-restricted ads can only be targeted to audiences predominantly made up of adults, Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules limit children’s exposure to these ads. But how can we tell how many of them children are seeing? This article considers that question – mainly in relation to TV and online.
As an evidence-based regulator, research and analysis plays a key role in helping the ASA to deliver regulation which is transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted. ASA research tends to fall into two categories:
- Assessing the impact of advertising creative on the audience, such as recently published Racial & Ethnic Stereotyping in Ads report;
- Monitoring the targeting and media selection of advertising that is subject to scheduling and placement restrictions.
The ASA has published the findings of their latest report focusing on children’s exposure to TV ads for alcohol and gambling products. Measuring ads seen by children rather than ads that are shown is the ideal way to assess exposure to advertising. Scheduling restrictions work to limit children’s exposure to these age-restricted ads, and – where children do see them around programmes and other content attracting a predominantly adult audience – ASA content rules ensure that the ads don’t appeal strongly to them.
ASA’s preferred approach when monitoring exposure to age-restricted ads is to analyse robust industry-standard data. The report published is based on ‘commercial impacts’ data: one person, seeing one ad, at one time. This data is provided by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) and is based on its panel of 5,300 UK homes.
In recent years, BARB has adapted its methodologies to expand its measurement of the time spent viewing TV and viewing of programmes to also include broadcaster video-on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer and viewing across tablets, smartphones and PCs. It also now reports on the total time spent viewing subscription video-on-demand services such as Netflix and Disney and video-sharing platforms like TikTok, Twitch and YouTube. Viewing of advertisements on these devices, services or platforms, however, is not currently measured.
The ASA are very aware that the extent, nature and precision of audience measurement data varies between media. This guidance on media placement restrictions acknowledges this and advises on steps advertisers can take to limit children’s exposure to age-restricted ads where this may be the case. When it comes to online regulation, there isn’t comparative, industry-standard data for children’s exposure to ads. A look at the media landscape highlights some of the difficulties in measuring online exposure.
Firstly, there are innumerable content choices online from across the world, accessible via a wide range of different connected devices and made available on different websites, apps, platforms, logged-in and open access environments. Tracking audience data across Ofcom-licensed TV channels is a technically much simpler task than doing the same across the mixed-bag of online media.
Secondly, in broad terms the TV schedule is linear, which means the ASA know which ad was broadcast on a particular channel at a particular time and, based on BARB’s panel, who viewed the ad and in what numbers. The targeted nature of online ads, based on known user data (such as geographic location) and/or inferred data arising from browsing behaviour, for example, means not all users see the same ad on the same page of a site at the same time, making it difficult to assign audience exposure to a particular ad.
In the absence of robust, industry-standard online audience data, the ASA has focused instead on using technology to proactively identify age-restricted ads that, in breach of the advertising rules, are placed in children’s media online and served to children’s social media accounts. Over the past two years they have demonstrated an innovative approach to online regulation through three key projects: Protecting Children Online; Protecting Children in Mixed-age Online Media; and Alcohol Ads in Social Media.
These projects have been pivotal in driving our proactive work to protect children online. ASA’s next research study, The 100 Children Report, will go further by providing a child’s eye view of the ads that children actually see online. Working with a panel of 100 children aged 11-17, from across the UK, the ASA will be able to identify and take action against age-restricted ads served inappropriately to children’s websites and their social media accounts. Building on a study undertaken in 2013, this piece of work should provide a fascinating and broader insight into the real-world experiences of children.
So, while the ASA may not be able to report on online exposure in the same way they do for TV, they’re always looking for ways research and analysis can evolve, and how they can continue to innovate to regulate, backed by a robust evidence base.
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