YouTube ads from McDonald’s, KFC and Asda rapped for promoting junk food to kids

McDonald’s was among those caught up in the ‘compliance sweep’

McDonald’s, KFC, Asda and more have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) after their ads for junk food appeared in front of kids' content on YouTube.

The brands were among eight who had ads banned following an investigation conducted by the watchdog using its new avatar technology - which simulated the online profiles of kids in order to identify the types of advert they see across the internet.

Marks & Spencer, Kellogg’s, KP snacks, and Pringles were also caught up in the “compliance sweep” for promoting food and soft drink products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) adjacent to YouTube videos aimed at kids.

The ASA conducted its test in the two weeks ahead of Christmas 2018, capturing information on online display ads across 210 websites and 87 YouTube channels.

The machine learning-powered experiment found that 2.3% of 41,030 ads served to child avatars across general interest and youth interest websites and YouTube channels were for HFSS products. In general, however, the ASA said brands were sticking to the rules around targeting unhealthy food to under-16’s online but noted it had a identified “problem” on YouTube.

ASA Chief Executive Guy Parker said: “Protecting children is one of our top priorities.

“The problematic ads we found were relatively few in number, compared to the total served, but we’ll take action in respect of any ad for high fat, salt or sugar food and soft drinks which is found to be directed inappropriately at children. We’ll be following up with similar compliance sweeps in the future.”

The ASA is currently in the midst of a review into the effectiveness of online and broadcast ads around HFSS products, the former of which were last updated in 2017.

Earlier this week, lobbying groups Action for Sugar and Action for Salt called on the U.K. government to stop brands from using cartoons and licensed characters on packaging to appeal to kids, after it found that such goods were typically “unnecessarily” packed with sugar.

Elsewhere, the government has previously toyed with the idea of banning ads for unhealthy foods from YouTube and Facebook, as well as before the 9pm watershed on TV. It’s currently in a public consultation on the matter.

For its part, the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba) said that against the backdrop of junk food ads being “high on the political agenda” it was important to note that the ASA research didn’t find evidence of brands seeking to target children on their on sites it or via the misuse of celebrities or licensed characters.

James Barge, Isba director of public policy, said:“It found that advertisers were acting in compliance with the rules, but did highlight issues with some online platforms where advertising had appeared, We support the ASA in seeking to strengthen their regulation of online advertising and would urge them to further understand the measures and exclusions responsible advertisers have in place and work with them to understand how they are being applied.”

Commenting on the ASA’s investigation, Google’s head of ad industry regulations, Michael Todd, said: "Because we want to ensure that children are not seeing inappropriate ads, we have robust advertising policies and provide tools to advertisers to exclude under 18 viewers from their campaigns. If we discover ads that break our policies, we take swift action.

“We’re reviewing the findings of the report and will continue to work with the ASA, as well as providing materials and training to advertisers so that they can reach the right audience on YouTube.”

The ASA’s use of avatar technology follows on from a pilot earlier this year which found several gambling brands to be targeting ads inappropriately towards children. The investment in the tech is part of the regulator’s five-year strategy, focused on better policing online ads.

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