Q&A: What does an online HFSS ad ban mean?

Posted on Monday 28 June 2021 | IAB UK

From what food and drink is caught by the online ban to how it could impact you, and what happens next, we answer some of the most pressing HFSS-related questions. Last updated December 2022

What has the Government said?

The Government initially announced that it would implement a total ban on paid-for advertising online for certain products that are High in Fat, Sugar or Salt (HFSS) by the end of 2023, along with a 9pm watershed on TV (note: this Q&A covers online only. There are some differences in the new rules for TV).

In May 2022, the Government announced that it would delay the implementation of the HFSS online ad ban and TV watershed by a year - pushing it back to January 2024. In December 2022, the Government announced a new date for the implementation of the ban: 1 October 2025. The new 2025 implementation date is welcome as the Government only published the required secondary legislation at the same time as it announced the new date. This legislation is crucial to allow regulators to develop detailed guidance on the ban and what is and is not permitted. The industry needs this clarity in order to sufficiently prepare. Find out more here.


What’s next?

In December 2022, the Government published draft secondary legislation relating to four key areas: product categories, SMEs, regulated radio and online audio. This is open to industry consultation, with responses due by 31 March 2023. IAB UK will be reviewing the consultation and responding in due course. We will keep members informed as to what the draft legislation includes and how to feed into our response, but please get in touch if you have any questions. 


What exactly is HFSS?

HFSS refers to food and drink products that are high in (saturated) fat, salt or sugar according to the Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM). Foods that score four or more, and drinks one or more, are classed as HFSS. Full details of the NPM are available here

For the purpose of this proposal, the ban applies to a specified list of types of products, if they are classed as HFSS by the NPM. The list is in line with other Government policies to restrict the promotion and placement of HFSS products in retail, with the addition of products eaten ‘out of home’ (main meals, starters/sides/small plates, children’s meal bundles and sandwiches).


Are all HFSS product ads banned?

No. The Government has narrowed down the products that fall within the scope of the ban, in order to focus on those most likely to be of appeal to children. There is a revised list of categories that are included in the ban, which will be subject to the ‘HFSS test’, i.e. what level they score on the Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model.*

* This is subject to the final secondary legislation that's currently subject to consultation. We will update with further details accordingly.


Are there any exemptions?

Yes. The following are exempt from the online ban*:

  • Brand advertising, so long as it does not include identifiable HFSS products
  • Ads in digital-only audio media (e.g. podcasts, digital-only radio, music streaming)
  • media supporting point of sale/purchase/transactional content (i.e. buying products online, such as from a retailer)
  • SMEs (fewer than 250 employees) advertising products that they manufacture or sell 
  • (Non-paid for) marketing in brands’ own media (e.g. websites, organic social content)
  • B2B ads

You can find out more via our downloadable infographic here

* This is subject to the final secondary legislation that's currently subject to consultation. We will update with further details accordingly.


What about on-demand TV - which set of rules applies?

The distinction is based on whether or not the service is regulated by Ofcom. Broadcast TV and ‘On-demand programme services’ (ODPS) that are regulated by Ofcom are subject to the 9pm watershed. Any other on-demand service is subject to the online rules.


When does the ban start?

As of December 2022, the ban is due to be introduced on 1 October 2025. You can read more about this here


Is it just online display advertising that’s banned?

No. In terms of advertising or media in scope, the ban extends to all paid-for advertising online (except in digital-only audio) such as search and social, video, in-game and in-app, etc. Specifically, this includes:

  • Paid-for listings on price comparison or aggregator services, such as sponsored listings on food delivery services
  • Paid-for online display advertising, such as banner ads on news websites and apps, swipe to buy
  • Paid-for online video advertising, such as video ads served before or during the content on video sharing sites
  • Paid-for online social media advertising, such as in-feed advertising on social media.
  • Paid-for search listings, such as sponsored links on search engines
  • Paid-for influencer marketing, such as influencer posts paid for/sponsored by an advertiser
  • Paid-for in-game advertising, such as banner ads in games apps
  • Paid-for newsletter advertising, such as banner ads in a cookery newsletter
  • Paid-for advertisements distributed through web widgets, such as those located on the sidebar of websites
  • Paid-for in-game advertisements
  • Paid-for advertorials
  • Paid-for advergames
  • Paid-for product-specific sponsorship (brand advertising/sponsorship is not in scope, so an organisation is able to advertise or provide sponsorship as a brand if the advert does not include an identifiable HFSS product)

* This is subject to the final secondary legislation that's currently subject to consultation. We will update with further details accordingly.


Why is the Government making these changes?

The advertising bans are part of a wider drive from the Government to tackle the UK’s rising obesity rates. The Government has had various plans in the past to address obesity and has decided it needs to do more as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new ad measures are intended to “shape the marketing to our children”, hence the 9pm TV advertising watershed. However, an outright online ad ban evidently extends this to everyone, by entirely eliminating ads for HFSS products online. 


So does that mean a ban on all online ‘fast food’ ads? 

It’s not that clear-cut - see above. But the ban is not limited to what people might typically consider to be ‘unhealthy’ food. The categories that are in scope are broad, and include not only ‘fast foods’ such as pizza and burgers, but also things such as sandwiches and yogurt. It doesn’t just affect brands’ own campaigns to promote their products, it also affects supermarket ads - such as for Christmas dinners and picnics - if they include HFSS products, although SMEs (less than 250 employees) are permitted to advertise HFSS products that they make or sell. Transactional content (i.e. linked to buying/selling products, such as an online supermarket) is exempt from the ban, as are B2B communications.


So are ads for products not within the ban totally unrestricted online?

No. While the details are yet to be worked through, we expect that existing CAP Code rules will continue to apply to HFSS ads that are permitted (i.e. ads for products that are out of scope of the ban, and brand ads). These rules include age-related restrictions on placement/targeting as well as rules on creative content. 


What about brand ads, or ads for product ranges that include HFSS and non-HFSS products?

As with product ads not in scope of the ban, we expect the existing CAP Code rules and guidance to continue to apply to all permitted ‘HFSS ads’. Under the CAP Code, this includes both ads for HFSS products and brand ads that have the effect of promoting an HFSS product. These HFSS ads will almost certainly continue to be subject to current age-related restrictions on placement/targeting ad creative content.


What does the IAB say? 

The IAB, our members and industry partners have been lobbying against the ban since it was first announced by Boris Johnson’s administration in 2020 as part of the Health and Care Bill. You can read a piece from our CEO Jon Mew here for further details. 

In 2022, our focus has been on communicating to policymakers that the industry needs clarity on what will be covered by the ban in order to sufficiently and effectively prepare for it. The required legislation was not published until December 2022. At the same time as publishing this draft legislation for consultation, the Government moved the implementation of the HFSS online ad ban to 2025, following lobbying from the IAB, our members and industry partners.

Our CEO Jon Mew says: “Throughout this process, we have been clear with Government that clarity and certainty are essential for our industry to effectively adhere to the HFSS online ad ban. The new implementation date is welcome and shows that policymakers are listening. Our members now have longer to prepare for the ban and gain much-needed clarity from the Government about exactly what’s in scope and how it will work in practice.”


What are IAB members doing now? 

We are in close contact with members of the IAB UK Regulatory Affairs & Public Policy Group, and will be working with them as we review the draft secondary legislation and form our response to the consultation. We will of course also be keeping all IAB UK members up-to-date on the process as it develops. If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact [email protected].  


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