The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has been experimenting with technology that identifies how gambling brands are flouting rules on age-restrictions to target children.
Five betting companies (including Aston Villa’s sponsor Unibet) were found to have broken rules that prohibit them from skewing ads towards kids as part of the trial.
The watchdog said the feature could soon be used to track ads on 'logged-in' environments, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
As part of the ASA's five-year strategy, which puts a greater emphasis on the regulation of online ads, the experiment focused on highlighting instances in which gambling ads preyed on children. To identify ads inappropriately served to kids online, the ASA's monitoring technology made use of child 'avatars'; digital profiles that stimulated children's browsing activity, sending out signals to advertisers.
Seven online avatars were designed to reflect the browsing characteristics of various demographics, including children aged six to seven, those aged eight to 12, 16-year-olds and adults, a well as people of indeterminate age. A profile that mimicked the browsing behaviour of both an adult and a child using the same device was also simulated to see what kind of ads were served against it.
Over a two-week monitoring period, the ASA tested 43 gambling operators and found that a total of five in non-logged in environments (ie owned websites, rather than social media profiles) were in breach of rules that ban gambling ads from targeting under 18s.
Vikings Video Slot, RedBet, Unibet, PlayOjo and Multilotto UK all accepted that their ads broke the guidelines. However, a number blamed it on "errors" made by third-party companies who served the campaigns on their behalf.
The next phase of the ASA's project will monitor ads for high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) products and alcohol.
The regulator has also said it is exploring whether this monitoring and enforcement approach could be extended to social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.
This news comes in the wake of comments Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg made last week, in which he called upon governments and regulators to take "a more active role" in policing ads online.
Facebook claims it already uses robust tools that age-gate real-money gaming pages, posts and ads on the platform.
It says that advertisers can only target gambling ads to people who are at or above the legal age.
Last month, the House of Lords called upon the government to create a central 'Digital Authority' to take responsibility for regulating the myriad of watchdogs already operating in the space, including the ASA.