Documents to download

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 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. 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 Act 2022, which received Royal Assent on 28 April 2022. On 14 May 2022, the Government announced that the advertising restrictions would be delayed; they are now expected to come into force on 1 October 2025.

The primary aim of the Online Safety Act 2023 is to protect children and to tackle illegal and harmful content online. There are stand-alone provisions in the Act dealing with fraudulent adverts in ‘user-to-user’ and ‘search’ services. Specifically, a requirement for the service provider to put in place proportionate systems and processes to prevent the risk of users encountering fraudulent adverts. The Government believes that these new provisions will increase the protection of children (and others) from fraudulent online advertising.

This briefing 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 briefing also considers specific issues on advertising to children including advertisements placed close to schools or play areas, the use of sexualised imagery, child safety, and the advertising of age restricted products (such as betting and gaming products and e-cigarettes). The final section of this briefing considers the issue of HFSS foods advertising and its impact on children.

Documents to download

Related posts