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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.

As part of its obesity strategy, the Government consulted in 2019 on proposals to extend restrictions on the advertising of HFSS products. In July 2020, the Government said it would introduce a 9 pm television watershed on all adverts for HFSS foods by the end of 2022. Wanting to go further online, the Government consulted from 10 November to 22 December 2020 on proposals for a total online advertising restriction for HFSS products. Taken together, both measures aim to reduce the amount of HFSS online advertising children are exposed to.

Recently, on 11 February 2021, the Department of Health & Social Care published a policy paper “Integration and innovation: working together to improve health and social care for all”. This paper sets out the Government’s legislative proposals for a new Health and Care Bill. In addition, the Government has developed a series of targeted proposals to improve social care, public health, and safety and quality. The overriding objective of its public health proposals being to tackle obesity, including childhood obesity. To this end the Government has reiterated its intention to ban HFSS products being shown on television before 9 pm and to consult on how to introduce a total restriction of online advertising for HFSS products.

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 the issue of HFSS foods advertising and childhood obesity.  

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