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ASA study shows ‘very concerning’ potential for children to receive alcohol ads

Can interest-based targeting help alcohol brands avoid targeting children with ads?

Alcohol brands could do more to ensure their ads are not seen by children on social media, according to new research from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The reality of social media advertising – both in terms of targeting and authenticating users’ ages – means that there are often infringements of the rules regarding alcohol advertisements across social platforms. According to the ASA, some alcohol brands could and should do more to minimize the possibility of their ads being delivered to children falsely registered as, or incorrectly inferred to be, 18 or older on social media.

It checked to see how alcohol brands targeted their ads based on age and audiences’ online interests to see if the selections made were in line with Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidance. It says that advertisers shouldn’t rely upon age-range targeting options alone, and should make additional ‘interests’ selections to ensure their ads are targeted to an adult audience and away from children.

The results demonstrated that few alcohol brands adequately used interest-based targeting to ensure that their ads did not appear alongside content that is child-adjacent. It also found that a handful of ad campaigns did not appear to use any age targeting at all: “This was very concerning and totally at odds with the letter and spirit of the UK advertising rules and guidance. For the majority that selected an age 18+ audience, many didn’t select any ‘interests’ options to give greater confidence in reaching an adult, rather than a child.”

Some of the brands that did use interest-based targeting did so with a wide margin of error to absolutely minimize the risk. 48% of ad campaigns were targeted to users registered as being over 25 – with 88% of those using interest-based targeting. Some campaigns even targeted audiences aged over 40, which would in theory exclude children falsely registered or wrongly inferred by the interest-based targeting to be 18-34 and 18-39.

Crucially, however, given the anonymized nature of the results, it isn’t possible to say that alcohol ads were shown to children, rather than the potential is there. A follow-up study will seek to determine whether any children are exposed to alcohol ads in reality.

An ASA spokesperson told The Drum: “The buck ultimately stops with advertisers in ensuring that they have taken every reasonable precaution to target their age-restricted [content] away from children. That said, given that these ads are hosted on social media, this is not an either/or question. Both brand and platform should be taking measures to limit, as far as is possible, children being targeted with age-inappropriate advertising.

“It is acknowledged that children may see alcohol ads on websites and apps, which are predominantly made up of adults, but in those environments we require alcohol advertisers to use the tools and data available to them to direct their ads to adults and away from the minority child audience. And, where children do see those ads, the creative content of the ads cannot appeal to them or otherwise exploit their vulnerabilities.”

Platform differences

The ASA also found that during the monitoring Facebook and Instagram were the only platforms with the functionality to “allow advertisers to positively exclude users from an audience on the basis of their interests.” Only 5% of observed campaigns used this feature.

The research concludes that targeting based on age alone is unlikely to be wholly effective in preventing alcohol advertising from being served to children. The ASA believes marketers must ensure they always use age demographic targeting in combination with additional targeting techniques and tools.

ASA chief executive Guy Parker said: “Thanks to the support of major online platforms, we’ve revealed unique insights on alcohol brands targeting practices in social media. This partnership has helped us offer specific advice to alcohol advertisers on how they can improve their practices. We now expect to see brands take on this advice to minimize the possibility of their ads being delivered to children.”

It comes a month after a group of 13 agencies signed up to responsible marketing guidelines set out by the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) around social advertising. McCann, Publicis, Dentsu and Havas among others pledged to operate to global standards governing proper due diligence on influencers, transparency over the use of sponsored products, and the use of age verification technology.

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