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New UK guidelines place stricter rules on age-restricted online campaigns

The UK’s advertising regulator has published new rules on how to target age-restricted ads responsibly online. Advertisers need to ensure compliance right from the start of the campaign planning, according to experts at Pinsent Masons.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has revised its guidance on age-restricted ads online (20 pages / 283 KB PDF), giving more protection to children and young people by introducing content, media placement and audience targeting restrictions.

The latest guidance by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) provides principles-based checklists to help advertisers and their agencies to limit children and young people’s exposure to age-restricted ads, such as those for alcohol, gambling, products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), and cosmetic interventions. It also includes an infographic that explains the steps advertisers can take to avoid breaching the UK Code of Advertising (CAP code).

For example, alcohol, gambling, and cosmetic interventions are among the age-restricted ads that must not be directed at people under 18 and must not appear alongside media where people under 18 form more than 25% of the audience. Meanwhile, HFSS food and drinks and medicines are among the ads that must not be directed at children under 16 and must not appear alongside media where more than 25% of the audience is under 16 years old.

The guidance makes it clear that advertisers have ultimate responsibility for ensuring compliance with the rules. They are also advised to ensure that other parties involved in developing and publishing a campaign, like agencies and influencers, are also aware of and follow the new restrictions.

“As a matter of best practice, and to avoid falling foul of the CAP code, advertisers should ensure that all parties involved in developing and publishing an ad campaign are aware of this new guidance, and the targeting and content restrictions of the CAP code, and follow them.  Compliance should be baked into the campaign planning from day one,” said Gill Dennis of Pinsent Masons.

Dennis described the guidance as “user friendly” due to the new principles-based checklists and infographic, but pointed out the increased scope of potential reputation damage in case of a breach.

“The user-friendly nature of the guidance means that the ASA will likely take a dim view of ads with age restricted content that are mistargeted. The need to protect children and young people online is very much in the news at the moment, and now the stakes have been raised in the advertising space too.  In light of this heightened awareness, business will need to take more care to ensure that the reputational damage of an adverse ASA finding is avoided,” said Dennis.

The revised guidance encourages advertisers to use data analytics to target their online ads and monitor if their targeting decisions were the right ones. This is particularly relevant in the event of an investigation by the ASA over complaints. Advertisers are expected to be able to demonstrate that they have taken into account the requirements of the relevant media placement restriction for each part of their campaign and have acted accordingly through their placement and targeting decisions to limit the exposure of a protected age group.

“Advertisers will need to work hand in hand with online platforms to have access to this data for these purposes.  If a platform is unable or unwilling to provide this data then an advertiser should think twice about whether that online environment is suitable for responsible and effective age-based targeting,” said Dennis.

The UK is seen leading the way in its efforts to protect children online, according to EU data law expert Andre Walter of Pinsent Masons, and the updated CAP guidance is another ground-breaking development.

“The EU is following the UK closely in its efforts to protect children online. With the EU Digital Service Act recently officially published, providers of online platforms shall not present advertisements to users anymore when they are reasonably aware that the recipient of the service is a minor,” said Walter.

“The updated CAP guidance is a good example that not only platforms should be held responsible for protecting minors online, but that also industry bodies, tech providers and market research partners, should develop self-regulatory guidance based on their insights to limit children and young people’s exposure to age-restricted ads. The entire ad ecosystem should fully support the purpose of protecting children online,” he said.

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