There was a deep sense of shock across the advertising industry when the UK government announced a blanket ban on digital advertising for foods High in Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS). With the backing of 79% of respondents to an earlier consultation, the Department of Health is imposing a 9pm watershed for television ads from the start of 2023. (Honey, olive oil, avocados and marmite escape the ruling but yoghurts, sandwiches and cereal are on the banned list)
It is hard to disagree with the motivation – saving 20,000 children from obesity and the NHS £6bn a year. With almost four times as many impressions online as on TV, some 11 billion a year, internet advertising could not be ignored. But Ministers were clearly unconvinced by arguments from the main advertising platforms that they could target such ads just at adults, and prevent children from being exposed to their temptations. The IAB, ISBA and IPA used the term “target” 122 times in their response to the consultation, but to no avail.
The Gambling Commission has already taken action to tighten the rules for ads by that industry, insisting they are aimed at users believed to be over 25 to reduce the number of children inadvertently included in the audience by erroneous age estimation techniques. Additional targeting measures are also required, such as excluding users whose other interests imply they may be children. But this may still not be enough to stave off further restrictions as the government drafts a White Paper on gambling regulation, while itself smarting from the policy criticisms of Sheffield’s coronor in a tragic case of a young man’s suicide which was related to his gambling addiction.
A decision by the Belgian data protection authority against the prevalent mechanism for faciliatating bidding for digital advertising space, created by IAB Europe, has also upset the apple-cart. While the privacy issues the system created were clearly concering to the authorities, such mechanisms are also critical to the ability to target ads away from children.
All of this follows the enforcement of the Children’s Code by the UK ICO; a requirement to ensure that content in general is age-appropriate, not just between adults and children, but for children of different age ranges. That applies to the advertising sites carry as much as to their own content. So ads for diet pills or dating services need to be directed away from kids online. The Irish DPC has issued similar guidance, with implications for large platforms that establish themselves in Dublin and fall under Irish regulators for all their EU activities.
If they want to preserve any revenues from digital ads for goods,content and services considered harmful to children, publishers, platforms and the advertising infrastructure behind them are going to need to find a way to offer a guaranteed adult-only audience. This is not beyond the wit of man. A simple, certified age verification check on each new user that claims to be over 18, or on the date their supplied date of birth suggests is their 18th birthday would allow services to curate a subset of their users which they can convincingly argue is overwhelmingly 18+. Estimation techniques which are tested and proven to deliver high levels of accuracy (usually by testing for an age a year or two above the legally restricted age) may also be acceptable to ministers and regulators.
But for as long as Ofcom surveys reach conclusions such as “42% of children under the minimum age requirement (aged between 5 and 12 years old) used social media” such platforms are going to struggle to make the case that digital ads can be accurately targeted at adults-only. And that is a high price to pay in lost revenues relative to the minor cost of applying standard-based age checks to their users. And an adult audience is also a more attractive one for advertisers, so may itself attract a premium as these are users who are legally and financially able to make purchases.
We’ve already reached the tipping point where for a wide range of reasons, online services need to know to a proportionate degree of certainty, the age or age-range of their users. Advertising may however be the driver for ubiquitous acceptance of this reality.