The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code contains specific requirements for targeting children and young people. For the purposes of the Code, a child is defined as anyone under the age of 16. Rule 5.4.2 states “Marketing communications addressed to or targeted at children must not make a direct exhortation to children to buy an advertised product or persuade their parents or other adults to buy an advertised product for them.” Put simply, marketers should not actively encourage children to buy an advertised product.
Section 5 also states that ads featuring children should not encourage irresponsible or dangerous practices and marketers should ensure that they do not use unsuitable, offensive or distressing material. In addition, there are specific rules surrounding age-restricted products such as alcohol, gambling, lotteries HFSS foods and e-cigarettes.
In 2011, the Department for Education published a report entitled ‘Letting Children be Children’, highlighting a number of concerns regarding the sexualisation and commercialisation of children and childhood. As part of the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) response to some of the issues raised, it reconsidered its position in relation to sexualised imagery in posters. Some previously acceptable outdoor imagery is now prohibited, namely that which can be considered ‘overtly/explicitly sexual’, and material considered ‘sexually suggestive’ should carry a placement restriction, ensuring it does not appear within 100 metres of a school.
Following the review, the ASA received a complaint about an underwear ad which showed a woman standing by a mantelpiece wearing a bra, knickers, stockings and stiletto shoes. The complainants challenged whether the ad was unsuitable for display where it might be seen by children. The ASA noted that the image did not contain any nudity and that, while it was likely to be considered sexually suggestive, the advertisers had applied a placement restriction to the copy and therefore considered it acceptable (J D Williams & Company Ltd, 14 March 2012).
In 2012 the ASA rejected complaints about a direct mailing in the form of a DVD from the NSPCC which stated on its cover “KERRY’S FATHER ASKED HER TO DO THE UNTHINKABLE. AND THEN HE FILMED IT”. The advertisers explained that the mailing had been carefully targeted to over 18’s and, whilst they couldn’t be sure children didn’t live at the address to which the mailing had been sent, the ASA considered that children were unlikely to understand the message and considered the mailing acceptable (National Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 21 March 2012). You can read more about sexual imagery in relation to children here.
Fear and distress
Rule 5.1 prohibits advertisers from using anything in their advertising which is likely to result in children’s physical, mental or moral harm. As such, marketers also need to take care that their ads are not likely to cause fear or distress to children, and any ads that do contain frightening or disturbing imagery are not targeted at children or in a medium where they are likely to be seen by children. Specifically, marketers wishing to advertise online (including social media and apps) should make use of any age restriction tools where applicable.
In 2017, the ASA upheld a complaints about two outdoor digital displays for the film Alien: Covenant. The ads, which featured a woman being chased and an alien mouth exploding towards the camera, were considered likely to frighten and distress children who saw it (Twentieth Century Fox Film Company Ltd, 16 August 2017).
You can read more about general fear and distress in advertising here.
Rule 5.1.1 through to 5.1.5 detail safety issues relating to children that marketers should avoid in their advertising. These include (but are not limited to) encouraging unsafe activities, entering strange places or talking to strangers, showing children in hazardous situations or behaving dangerously. Marketers should also be aware that ads in general (regardless of whether they are targeted at children) should not include children taking part in unsafe activities.
In 2012, clothing manufacturer Levi’s published a magazine ad showing young people holding lit fireworks with the captions “…WHEN YOU LEAVE THIS WORLD, DID YOU MAKE IT ANY BETTER THAN IT WAS WHEN YOU ARRIVED? ALL YOU NEED IS ALL YOU’VE GOT; YOUR WITS AND THE CLOTHES ON YOUR BACK. YOUR EPITAPH IS YOURS TO EARN; YOUR LEGACY IS YOURS TO MAKE. GO FORTH”. Though Levi’s confirmed that the fireworks in the ad were designed to be handheld, the ASA considered that this was not clear from the ad. As the ad was published around Fireworks Night and appeared to show young people holding exploding fireworks, the ASA concluded that there was a risk of emulation and that it condoned and encouraged an unsafe practice (Levi Strauss & Co. t/a Levi’s, 1 February 2012).
Although the Code defines a child as anyone under 16, some rules also require placement away from young people (i.e. 16-17). We therefore advise marketers to check the audience profiles of any media they plan to advertise in, in order to satisfy themselves that they are not at risk of targeting the wrong age groups. Marketers of alcoholic drinks, gambling products, lotteries, electronic cigarettes and foods/soft drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) should take special care. Similarly, marketing communications for diets should not appeal particularly to those under 18 (Rule 13.3) and care should be taken to place such ads appropriately.
HFSS product advertisements are subject to media placement restrictions to reduce the likelihood of children seeing them. Alcohol, gambling, lottery and e-cigarette advertisers should also take care to ensure they are not directing their advertising at under-18s through the selection of media, style of presentation, content or context in which they appear. Generally, no medium with an audience that is more than 25% under 16 should be used to advertise HFSS products or lotteries and not more than 25% under 18 for alcohol, gambling and electronic cigarettes. It is, obviously, never acceptable to include an under-age consumer in a directly targeted audience/mailing list for such products.
When it comes to social media, as well as taking audience composition-based steps to prevent users who are registered as under 16 from viewing age-restricted ads, the ASA is likely to expect marketers to make full use of any tools available to them, such as interest-based targeting and any linked external data, to ensure that ads are targeted at age-appropriate users, particularly given that it is possible for younger users to misreport their age.
Where such tools are available, the ASA has ruled that the general 25% consideration in the targeting rule does not apply. As many social media ads can be (and usually are) targeted at a defined set of users, the ASA does not consider it relevant that less than 25% of the total platform audience is under-age, and expect marketers to be taking all reasonable steps to exclude under-age consumers from the targeted audience.
Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the ASA. CAP’s AdviceOnline entries provide guidance on interpreting the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing.
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