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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 belegal, decent, honest and truthful”.

The Advertising Codes contain strict rules to protect children (and young people) from potentially misleading, harmful, or offensive material. 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”. There are, for example, advertising rules to:

  • 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.  

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

The Government consulted in March 2019 and in the autumn of 2020 on proposals to extend restrictions on the advertising of HFSS products. The aim being to reduce the amount of HFSS advertising children are exposed to. The Government published its response to both consultations on 24 June 2021. It announced that new advertising restrictions would be implemented as part of its ongoing commitment to tackle childhood obesity. Specifically, a 9pm watershed for advertisements of HFSS foods, applicable to television and UK on-demand programmes. In addition, a prohibition on paid-for advertising of HFSS foods online. Both restrictions are legislated for in the Health and Care Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 6 July 2021.

This 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. This 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 the issue of HFSS foods advertising and childhood obesity.  

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