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Advertisements and promotions are a feature of modern life. In the UK, the content of advertising, sales promotions and direct marketing across all media, including marketing on websites, is self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It does this by enforcing the Advertising Codes; there are separate codes for non-broadcast and broadcast advertisements. All adverts are expected to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

The protection of children sits at the heart of the Advertising Codes. This is because children are less likely to be able to understand and process commercial messages in advertisements than adults. Children are also often more likely to be adversely affected by “inappropriate, scary or offensive images”. The Advertising Codes contain strict rules to protect children (and young people) from potentially misleading, harmful or offensive material. For example, the rules:

  • prohibit advertisements from depicting children in hazardous situations or encouraging them to engage in dangerous behaviour; and
  • prevent advertisements from undermining parental authority or placing unfair pressure on children to buy products
  • The Advertising rules are regularly reviewed and updated by the ASA.

The ASA is independent of both the Government and the advertising industry. It is recognised by the Government and other regulators as the body to deal with complaints about advertising. Its remit includes acting on and investigating complaints about advertisements as well as proactively monitoring and acting against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing. If a complaint about an advertisement is upheld, the advertiser must withdraw or amend the advertisement and not use the advertising approach again. If the advertiser does not comply, the ASA has other sanctions at its disposal. All ASA adjudications are published.  

In recent years, there has been an ongoing debate about the impact of advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) on levels of childhood obesity. Various campaign groups and health bodies are actively calling for tighter restrictions, particularly in respect of television and online advertising.

As part of its obesity strategy, the Government consulted in 2019 on proposals to extend restrictions in the advertising of HFSS products on broadcast TV and online media. In July 2020 the Government said it would introduce a 9pm watershed on TV on all adverts for HFSS foods by the end of 2022. The Government now intends to go further and is consulting on a total online advertising restriction for HFSS products. The consultation ends on 22 December 2020.  

This Commons briefing paper looks at the current advertising regulatory system in the UK, with specific reference to advertising to children. It draws heavily on the information provided by the ASA on its website. The paper also considers some specific issues relating to advertising and children, for example, the use of sexualised imagery, advertising of age restricted products, betting and gaming, and advertisements placed close to schools or play areas. The final sections of this paper consider advertising and childhood obesity and the open consultation on Government proposals to introduce a total online advertising restriction for HFSS products.  

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