Online ads for food and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar aimed at children have been slapped with a tough new ban from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).
The move comes after a full public consultation from the body, which sets codes of practice for all media ads in the UK except TV or radio spots. Initial talks kicked off in May in order to find a way to limit advertising of 'junk food' to kids.
The rules will apply across all non-broadcast media including print, cinema as well as online and in social media, which the group said was "crucial". CAP also asserted its restrictions would apply to all other media where under-16s made up a quarter of the audience.
This mean ads for sugary and salty food and drink products will no longer be allowed to appear around TV-like content online, ie on platforms such as YouTube or in branded games , if they are directed at or likely to appeal particularly to children.
Ads for products deemed to be unhealthy against government benchmarks will not be allowed to use promotions, licensed characters or celebrities popular with children to promote their products, with CAP saying that advertisers may now use those techniques to "better promote healthier options". However, child-friendly ambassadors (think Tigers and Clowns) are not off the menu yet for brands.
The rules will come into effect on 1 July 2017, with a view to protect the health and wellbeing of children as they spend more and more time online. Research from Ofcom shows that young people aged between 5-15-years-old are spending around 15 hours each week online – overtaking time spent watching a TV set for the first time.
Ofcom has had a blanket ban in place on junk food ads around children's TV programming for 10 years, so today's announcement brings non-broadcast advertising rules in line with the longstanding TV stipulations.
"Childhood obesity is a serious and complex issue and one that we’re determined to play our part in tackling," said James Best, chairman of CAP.
"These restrictions will significantly reduce the number of ads for high, fat, salt or sugar products seen by children. Our tough new rules are a clear demonstration that the ad industry is willing and ready to act on its responsibilities and puts the protection of children at the heart of its work."
However, some critics are unsure of the effectiveness the move will have, with the Children's Food Campaign initiative saying that while the rules are a positive step and go some way in removing the "most blatant forms" of junk food advertising that CAP has "failed to learn the lessons from industry’s exploitation of loopholes in TV advertising regulations".
Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator of the lobby group explained: "Just as many of the TV programmes most watched by children aren’t covered by the rules, so it looks like many of the most popular social media sites won’t be either; neither will billboards near schools, or product packaging itself."
Commenting on the fact that the restriction will only apply offline if children make up more than 25% of an audience, Clark proposed a "comprehensive and transparent definition" of what constitutes marketing ‘directly appealing to children’.
He continued: "Ultimately, the new rules are only as good as the body which enforces them. We hope that from July 2017 CAP and the Advertising Standards Authority will ensure companies follow both the letter and the spirit of these new rules, and close any loopholes which arise."
The reaction of the Institute of Practioners in Advertising (IPA) was more positive, with the collective's director of legal and public affairs, Richard Lindsay, saying that CAP's public consultation and subsequent announcement showed that the self-regulatory system was "strong enough to take difficult decisions and flexible enough to implement them".
The IPA said it supported the initiative, with Lindsay adding: "Agencies already adhere to the rules governing the advertising of HFSS products on television and, since the means by which children consume media has changed considerably over the years, it makes sense to align the non-broadcast rules with those for television.
Agencies have until 1 July 2017 to ensure that their creative content and media planning strategies take these new rules into account, and there will be an additional three-month transitional period for advertisers who can demonstrate to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) that the media space in question was booked prior to CAP’s announcement.
Today's news caps off a year that has brought growing public and political debate around sugar, and the responsibility of brands to promote healthier lifestyles.