Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

HFSS: Not a piece of cake

By Nick Hill, Regional Trading & Account Management Director at MiQ

The advertising industry is used to changes in regulation, so perhaps  the recent announcement made by the UK Government, aiming at a complete online ban on High in Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) product advertising is no game changer. In practice, these changes will prevent fast food and sugary drinks from being promoted online or at any time before 9pm on TV from the end of 2022.

HFSS restrictions were already contentious. There are already appropriate restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, and gambling advertising in place, and HFSS has been regulated for many years. This shift compels the industry to treat HFSS goods more harshly than prohibited content such as gambling and violence, and even challenges the notion that alcohol is worse for health than HFSS.

Is this just a refresh of existing policy or a significant hurdle for marketers?

Educating clients

Given that the topic of ad restriction is not new, advertisers should be familiar with ways to mitigate the risks of a potential breach. However, in order to achieve this, raising awareness and educating clients is key. Open discussion on the topic should be at the forefront of any agency-client relation to make sure campaigns are aligned to what can and can’t be promoted in an ad.

For instance, marketers can provide clients with advice on potential issues hiding in the copy or caution against prominent placement of particular products that happen to be high in fat. Instead, advertisers can suggest a branding piece that focuses on the logo on the front and doesn’t put the products in the centre.

Age verification

All of the above restrictions are fundamentally about protecting children – it being far easier to regulate who is allowed to put ads in front of under-18s than to regulate the content that under-18s choose to browse online.

Since its advent, the targeting capability of programmatic advertising has been both its strength and also its weakness. There has been a prevailing belief across the industry that with all the players in the ecosystem and all the data providers out there, everything and everyone is somewhat targetable. In my career, I have seen more than my fair share of media briefs asking for targeting that is extraordinarily niche. Thinking about existing restrictions, wouldn’t excluding children from any targeting be as issue-free as it sounds?

Targeting the right audience

While the motivation is laudable, it might be easier said than done. Today, there’s a whole set of verticals that can be referred to as sensitive categories and each one has its own kind of nuance. For instance, whilst marketers can run advertising campaigns for an alcohol brand, they are not allowed to put any promotional content in any place that’s obviously targeted at those under the age of 18.

Excluding children from targeting actually means including every other age; a subtle difference that leans heavily on the notion that there is some validity in age segmentation. Certain data providers provide or have provided tools that allow you to see which audience segments you, as a user, are placed in by them. I was surprised at how age segmentation often did not have any mutual exclusivity in its execution. To illustrate my point, according to the validation tool, I am in my 20s, but also in my 30s, and also in my 60s (a love of gardening might have something to do with that). I am a man and a woman. I have a range of interests from the obvious (news and politics) to the astute (what my love of gardening and my location imply) to the nonsense inferences – endless “interests” that I have no interest in.

Age targeting online has always had validity issues, not least because plenty of teenagers are doing their utmost to pretend to be 18+ a lot of the time. For age segmentors, it is not possible to verify each person’s age. To put simply, it’s like being a bouncer at the door of a nightclub without being able to check an ID. Algorithms marking their own homework can be no better than the bouncer’s gut feeling; subject to the subconscious biases of their owners and substituting effective age targeting for the feeling of effective age targeting with a deft sleight of hand.

Full disclosure: I like burgers. And pizza. I ate a delicious sandwich this week that hit all the right HFSS no-go spots. Whilst it didn’t do my waistline any good, I was comforted that it was entirely legal. It would have been exactly as legal if the sandwich was purchased by a 15-year-old. The original driving force behind advertising restrictions was that the restrictions should reflect the spirit behind existing law. As children are not allowed to buy alcohol or cigarettes, restrictions on those products make sense. The new regulations announced by the government are an escalation that is worrying if presented in the right context. From an online advertising perspective, we are effectively now saying that a sandwich is worse than alcohol and cigarettes.

The objective in all of this is reducing childhood obesity with which many of us fully endorse. One in three children currently leaving primary school are overweight, and the government is aiming to halve this rate by 2030. Doing so would have huge long-term positive impacts on the NHS and the economy, and I doubt you’d be able to find a person who wanted to argue in favour of continuing to put children’s health at risk. But this is where we get down to brass tacks. The government’s own impact assessment shows that the HFSS watershed will impact a child’s calorie intake by just 1.7 calories per day. This number rises to 2.9 calories per day for a total online ban. Not the number you would hope for when turning off a £600m-a-year advertising faucet. You’d get more calories in 200g of Dairy Milk chocolate per year.

With the potential losses advertising agencies face and unsupported claims that this legislative campaign will tackle obesity, many might think that this regulation is aimed at just making us feel like we’re doing something. As the proposed changes are much more far-reaching and severe for marketers than any HFSS laws before, it is difficult not to see them as an avoidable and unsubstantiated challenge to our creative industry.