In-Depth: TV Advertising Restrictions & Child Audiences

With the 2016 UK budget bringing the long-mooted sugar tax into sharp focus, campaigners are debating on how this positive step can be reinforced with further action. Inevitably, the eye of scrutiny has fallen on the TV advertising market, and its particular influence on young viewers.

Kids love TV, with the average 4-15 year-old watching 1 hour 23 minutes of commercial television a day – a figure that has generally remained stable since 2005. Overall, TV remains the most consumed media for kids aged 5-15, with 14.6 hours a week spent watching TV compared to the 12.5 hours they spend online; asked which media they would miss the most, TV again again comes out on top.

However, with TV’s enduring appeal to children comes great responsibility. it has long been known that the power of TV advertising can have a particular influence on such viewers, the likes of whom are generally more impressionable when exposed to marketing material. Consequently, there exists a large set of strict regulations on what types of advertising material broadcasters can show to kids.

Defining the code of conduct.

According to the BCAP code – the regulatory framework enforced by BCAP and the Advertising Standards Association (ASA), both of whom are responsible to Ofcom – a child is defined as someone under the age of 16. It is the responsibly of agencies, broadcasters and, perhaps most importantly, Clearcast, to guide advertisers through this considerable web of legislature. Within it resides two categories; the first of which is ‘products or services of exclusive interest to children’, with toys and games generally applicable.TV advertisers are obligated to comply with several codes of conduct, such as: 

  • Ensuring ads do not play on a child’s susceptibility by directly encouraging them to buy products, or asking their parents to do so.
  • Including a clear reference to the price for products over £30.
  • Eschewing the use of persuasive qualifiers such ‘just’ or ‘only’.
  • Avoiding any insinuation that, by not buying a product, a child risks ridicule or marginalisation.
  • Exploiting a child’s inexperience, naivety or sense of loyalty.
  • Angling direct response mechanisms such as URL calls to action directly at children.
  • Competitions are also subject to strict regulations.

Other rules are more prosaic, with the condoning of bullying, the representation of children in sexual ways, and the encouraging of behaviours or actions that could place a young viewer in a position of danger all obviously prohibited.

The second category of products or services are those ‘of interest to children’, i.e., TV advertisements that, whilst not of direct relevance to young viewers, nevertheless provoke a child’s interest in the the product itself or the way it’s marketed. Here’s where the likes of foods (and drinks) high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), gambling, alcoholic drinks and e-cigarettes enter the equation, with the aforementioned exploitation of credulity, inexperience and naivety, as well as the condoning of practices or behaviours that could be detrimental to a child’s health, particular concerns for Ofcom.

Scheduling restrictions.

Currently, TV advertisements promoting products or services ‘of interest to children’ – such as HFSS foods – are banned from the TV schedule before 19:30, and are prohibited from being shown in or around TV programming that has an average audience proportion of under-16 higher than 20%. Such ads are not permitted to be aired on children’s TV channels – where shows are obviously commissioned and made specifically with kids in mind – at all. Additionally, as is already common knowledge, TV advertisements that may scare or cause distress among young viewers are subject to a post-9pm watershed.

Provided that call-to-actions are not directly aimed at children, direct response TV advertisers are free to advertise during the customary, cost-effective daytime (09:30-17:30) viewing hours, though diligence must be exercised – especially during school holidays and at weekends – in the scheduling of such campaigns. Research from Thinkbox demonstrates how direct response TV advertising is particularly effective as a generator of response uplifts when placed in and around children's TV programming, making it all the more important to be responsible.

All of the above demonstrates the pre-existing sturdiness of restrictions around TV advertising and child viewers, yet there is a chink in the armour; one that has understandably attracted ire from charity groups particularly concerned by obesity in the UK.

Scheduling Concerns, and the Solution?

Whilst the post-19:30 and audience percentage restrictions have done a great job in minimising the risk of exposure to TV advertisements promoting products or services that could be detrimental to children, large general entertainment shows like The X Factor remain a serious matter of dispute.

Such content attracts millions of TV viewers and represents a staple of shared family time at the weekend, meaning a large proportion of children are ultimately exposed to unhealthy food and drink advertised by major supermarkets and fast food outlets. Campaigners insist that all such advertising should be banned pre-9pm, yet this would result in the TV market losing millions in advertising revenue every year, which – as the counter-argument goes – would subsequently have an adverse impact on an already slow UK economy and investment in public services that can aid young members of society.

Fundamentally, the health and protection of children should take precedence over any monetary concerns; of this there can be no dispute. Yet we’re also intrigued by the compromise offered by TV broadcasters: namely the unobtrusive yet nevertheless prominent promotion – in the guise of celebrity endorsement, for example – of healthy eating habits and low-fat, low-sugar foods and drinks in popular, prime time shows; the likes of which have a huge influence on popular culture.


The Need for a Collaborative Approach.

Ultimately, with the restrictions on TV advertising content and scheduling already regarded as some of the strongest of Europe’s TV markets, perhaps this is a compromise that could have traction. Let us not forget the responsibility brands themselves have in promoting healthier lifestyles – the onus should not fall exclusively on TV broadcasters and regulatory bodies. Instead, it should be a collaborative fight that also includes the press and online; the latter of which trails woefully in advertising restrictions around the likes of fast food, soft drinks and other potentially harmful marketing content.

TV advertising’s considerable influence on public behaviours rightly places it at the heart of the battle, but let’s hope the Government’s new levy on sugar tax prompts the implementation of a wider, all-inclusive approach.