Rules on high fat, salt or sugar food advertising – The “takeaway” messages

30 August, 2019
by: Cripps Pemberton Greenish

On 1 July 2017, new rules came into force restricting the advertising on high fat, salt or sugar (“HFSS”) foods. These rules were designed to prevent children and young people from being targeted by advertisements for unhealthy or non-nutritious food and soft drinks.  More than 2 years on, we briefly recap these rules and examine how they have been applied.


HFSS food advertising rules

A food or soft drink is identified as “high in fat, salt or sugar” depending on its nutrient profile, which is determined using a model developed by the Department of Health.


The Committee of Advertising Practice (“CAP”) restricts direct or indirect promotions of HFSS products in children’s media. Additionally advertisers must not place HFSS advertisements in media where children make up over 25% of the audience. HFSS product advertisements must also not use promotions, licensed characters or celebrities which are popular with children. The latter point does not apply to brand characters which were created by advertisers for the purposes of selling the products they were designed to sell.


For the purposes of these rules, a child is any person under 16 years of age. The rules apply to advertising across a variety of mediums, from print media to social media and websites such as YouTube. Advertisers should pay particular attention to the use of more novel mediums such as “advergames” (games which are used for the purposes of advertising). By their nature, advergames may be considered to appeal more to children than to other audiences.


ASA rulings and studies

Since the introduction of these rules, the Advertising Standards Agency (“ASA”) has made 28 rulings and informally resolved 5 complaints in relation to HFSS product advertising. Of its 28 rulings in this area, 16 were upheld or partly upheld.


As one may expect, many of the complaints investigated by the ASA relate to advertisements by fast food restaurants and confectioners. The most frequent complaints relate to breaches of the specific rule concerning advertising of HFSS products in media where children make up over 25% of the audience. This may indicate, for example, that some advertisers are not properly targeting their advertisements.


From November-December 2018, the ASA used “avatar” technology for compliance monitoring purposes. The avatar simulated a child’s online profile to identify how children are served with HFSS advertisements. In general the ASA considered that advertisers were abiding by HFSS rules. However it did have concerns that YouTube channels targeted at children were displaying inappropriate HFSS advertisements.


Protecting the health of children and safeguarding them from online harm remain important focal points for public policy. With online HFSS product advertising representing an intersection of these two worlds, expect to see the ASA taking a keen interest in compliance and taking enforcement action where necessary.


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