ASA warns advertisers to avoid targeting children on mixed-age sites

| By Conor Mulheir
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has published the findings of its latest proactive monitoring sweep, and called upon advertisers to better use online targeting tools to minimise children’s exposure to age-restricted ads, including for gambling.

The monitoring sweep used avatar technology to assess the distribution of advertising for alcohol, gambling, and high fat, salt or sugar products, via websites and YouTube channels attracting a mixed-age audience.

The monitoring which underpins the project was focused on non-logged in websites and YouTube channels whose audiences consist of 75-90% adults.

It assessed whether advertisers using dynamically served adverts for age-restricted products were showing the adverts to children on mixed-age websites.

The ASA used avatars for the purpose of identifying trends in how these ads are being delivered. These avatars were constructed to reflect the online browsing profile of different age groups: 6-7 year-old, 8-12 year-old, 13-16 year-old, adult, a shared profile for an adult and child, and a neutral profile.

However, it said that the avatars’ automated actions, visiting 250 web pages on both desktop and mobile devices twice a day, are “obviously not indicative of real world online behaviours.”

This, it said, explains why the six avatars received 27,395 ads across the 250 sites in a three-week monitoring period.

The figures do not reflect real-world exposure levels to advertising, but the data gives the Authority a good basis for assessing whether age-restricted ads are being targeted away from children in online media which attracts a mixed but heavily weighted adult audience of 75% or above, it said.

The study found that gambling ads were served in broadly similar numbers to child and adult avatars, with no significant skew towards the adult profiles. The neutral avatar, which has no browsing history to provide indicative age information, was served noticeably fewer gambling ads in mixed-age media.

The avatars received 248 ad impressions for gambling products from 11 brands, compared to 182 ad impressions for high fat, salt or sugar products from 9 brands. The ASA said these numbers are relatively small and indicated that HFSS and gambling advertisers were largely successful in targeting their ads away from children.

The authority described the minimisation of children’s exposure to age-restricted ads generally as a legitimate regulatory objective, and said it therefore wants to see advertisers use available tools to more effectively target their ads away from children, even where the majority of an audience is over 18.

The project runs alongside the ASA’s year-long project to tackle age-restricted ads appearing in media aimed specifically at children.

“We call on advertisers to make better use of targeting tools to minimise children’s exposure to dynamically served age-restricted ads,” said Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

“And we call on third parties involved in the distribution of these ads to ensure the data and modelling on which those tools rely are as effective as they can be. Finally, we will be exploring whether the report should lead to more prescriptive measures relating to dynamically-served age-restricted ads. This latest monitoring sweep is just one part of a wider set of initiatives where we’re harnessing technology, all with the aim of ensuring children are protected online.”

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