A recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) in respect of four YouTube adverts shown by mobile phone operator Hutchinson 3G UK Ltd (“Three”) serves as a reminder to businesses of the importance of appropriately targeting advertisements, especially where the content may not be suitable for children.
Three complaints from parents of children under 12 were upheld by the ASA in relation to four adverts shown by Three. The adverts consisted of one YouTube advert, one banner advert and two pre-roll adverts. In each case, the ASA found that rules 1.3 (Social Responsibility) and 4.2 (Harm and offence) of the Committee of Advertising Practices Code (“CAP Code”) had been breached.
The banner and pre-roll adverts contained a shorter version of a main advert with the heading, “click to watch, if you dare”. When clicked, these adverts linked to the main advert which contained the warning, “WARNING. The following film contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Viewer discretion is advised. Restricted. Suitable for viewers aged 15 and over” accompanied by the 15 rating film classification logo. If viewers decided to watch the advert after reading the warning, the content included the following images:
• a voodoo style doll hanging from a tree in the woods;
• a shadowy figure crossing in front of a tent; and
• a haunted house inhabited by a child sitting on a bed drooling “black gunge”.
The three complainants claimed that the above content was likely to cause distress to children and challenged whether the advert had been appropriately targeted.
Three responded by claiming:
• they had used a warning on the main advert to deter inappropriate viewing;
• they had sought a British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), a government backed scheme to enable viewers to decide appropriate content;
• they had hoped that children would be supervised by adults, who would protect them from watching inappropriate content; and
• inferred targeting had been used for the banner advert based on a profile of viewing habits over a period of time.
The ASA held that, in each case, CAP Code rules 1.3 (Social responsibility) and rule 4.2 (Harm and offence) were breached. The length of the advert paired with the creation and maintenance of a heightened sense of suspense meant the advert was very likely to cause distress and fear to children. Although the adverts did not contain violent acts, they did contain scenes likely to be deemed “scary” to younger viewers.
The ASA considered that more could have been done to limit the targeting of the advert, for example by making the advert only accessible to YouTube users over the age of 15 signed into their YouTube account. The warnings used were not sufficient to reduce the chance of children watching the adverts, and Three must ensure that all future adverts are appropriately targeted where they contain material that is unsuitable for children.