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Advertising to children

Advertisements and promotions are a feature of modern life. In the UK, the content of advertising, sales promotions and direct marketing across all media, including marketing on websites, is self-regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It does this by enforcing the Advertising Codes; there are separate codes for non-broadcast and broadcast advertisements. All adverts are expected to be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”.

The protection of children sits at the heart of the Advertising Codes. The ASA recognises that because of their lack of life experience, children are less likely to be able to understand and process commercial messages in advertisements than adults. Children are also often more likely to be adversely affected by “inappropriate, scary or offensive images”. The Advertising Codes contain strict rules to protect children (and young people) from potentially misleading, harmful or offensive material. For example, the rules:

  • prohibit advertisements from depicting children in hazardous situations or encouraging them to engage in dangerous behaviour; and
  • prevent advertisements from undermining parental authority or placing unfair pressure on children to buy products

The Advertising rules are regularly reviewed and updated by the ASA.

The ASA is independent of both the Government and the advertising industry. It is recognised by the Government and other regulators as the body to deal with complaints about advertising. Its remit includes acting on and investigating complaints about advertisements as well as proactively monitoring and taking action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing. If a complaint about an advertisement is upheld, the advertiser must withdraw or amend the advertisement and not use the advertising approach again. All ASA adjudications are published.

This Commons briefing paper looks at the current advertising regulatory system in the UK, with specific reference to advertising to children. Since this is a huge subject this Paper can, at best, only touch on some of the main points.