Thursday 6 June 2019 1:01 am

Watchdog finds no evidence of junk food ads targeted at children after ‘avatar’ sting

The advertising watchdog has found no evidence of brands deliberately targeting junk food adverts at children online, but has still pledged to stop children from coming across ads for unhealthy food.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) today said it did not identify “any clear evidence” of brands trying to deliver ads for products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) on children’s websites and YouTube channels.

Read more: Advertising watchdog used child avatars to catch irresponsible gambling adverts

The ASA used avatars that simulate the online profiles of children in order to identify campaigns that breach advertising rules, which state junk food adverts must not be delivered to children under the age of 16.

During the two-week monitoring period, the programme found that 2.3 per cent of the 41,000 ads served to child avatars on children’s websites and YouTube channels were for HFSS products.

The ASA found that, in general, brands were sticking to the rules. But the sting identified a number of adverts on children’s YouTube channels promoting unhealthy food.

The watchdog identified eight brands, including Asda, Lidl and Marks & Spencer, whose adverts for HFSS products appeared alongside videos aimed at children.

However, 26 of the 39 websites clearly aimed at children did not serve a single ad for an HFSS product. On the remaining sites, the offending ads accounted for just 0.5 per cent of all adverts served.

“Protecting children is one of our top priorities,” said ASA chief executive Guy Parker. “The problematic ads we found were relatively few in number compared to the total served, but we’ll take action in respect of any ad for high fat, salt or sugar food and soft drinks which is found to be directed inappropriately at children.”

The Committee of Advertising Practice, which writes the rules for advertising in the UK, asked the brands to take immediate steps to remove the offending adverts and called on YouTube to help ensure these campaigns did not appear on channels aimed at children.

In response to the findings, advertising industry body ISBA said it was “important to note” that the ASA had found no evidence of brands deliberately seeking to target children.

Read more: Crackdown on junk food adverts ‘will damage’ broadcasters and advertisers

“It found that advertisers were acting in compliance with the rules, but did highlight issues with some online platforms where advertising had appeared,” ISBA said in a statement.

Earlier this year the ASA took action against five gambling firms after carrying out a similar avatar programme to identify betting adverts targeted at children.