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

Posted on: Tuesday 29 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 June 2021

What has the Government said? 

The Government has confirmed that it will 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 2022. It will also introduce a 9pm watershed on TV (note: this Q&A covers online only. There are some differences in the new rules for TV).


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


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


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?

The Government needs to legislate for the ban to come into force. Subject to that, the plan is for it to come into effect on 1 January 2023. For now, the existing CAP/BCAP Code restrictions on HFSS advertising/marketing continue to apply.


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)


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 is the ad industry’s reaction? 

Since the ban was first announced in July 2020, trade bodies across the ad industry have condemned the Government's proposed ad ban as “unwarranted” and “draconian”, and called for the Government to be led by the evidence, which doesn’t show that a ban would address obesity. We submitted a joint response with ISBA (representing British advertisers) and the IPA (representing the UK’s advertising, media and marketing communications agencies) to the Government’s consultation on the ban in December 2020, setting out the industry alternative. Read it here

Together with other industry bodies, we have spent a huge amount of time and effort on engaging with the Government, writing to Ministers including the Prime Minister, responding to the consultation, and talking to MPs to urge a proportionate approach to the issue based on robust evidence. We have also worked with CAP, the industry advertising rule-writing body, to develop an alternative proposal that would see the existing HFSS ad restrictions tightened to further reduce children’s very limited exposure of HFSS ads online. Despite this, the Government has chosen to proceed with a total ban that eliminates HFSS product ads online.


What is the IAB doing now?

The ban will be enacted via the Health and Care Bill, voted on by Parliament, and the IAB and others will, of course, continue to lobby for a moderation of the extreme proposal. In the coming weeks we will be talking to members to agree the best course of action. You can read about our next steps from our CEO, Jon Mew, via AdWeek here


Is the IAB saying that online advertising doesn’t work?

No - but obesity rates aren’t an indicator of whether food and drink advertising is working. We have plenty of evidence to support the effectiveness of online advertising, and in the vast majority of cases, in a market like this, advertising is designed not to grow the market, but to grow brand share. Our point is that the Government hasn’t been able to demonstrate that going beyond the existing restrictions and banning HFSS advertising entirely (for adults and children alike) is the right solution to such a complex and multifaceted issue as obesity. 


The Government says children are bombarded with HFSS ads - isn’t that a problem?

The facts don’t support that view. Recognising that children are at greater risk of ‘harm’, industry bodies (through the Committee of Advertising Practice - CAP) reviewed the evidence relating to the impact of HFSS ads on children. Subsequently, new rules were added to the CAP Code in 2017 for all non-broadcast media. These mean you can’t advertise or market HFSS products in children’s media or content; you can’t target child audiences in other media; and your ad or marketing content can’t appeal to children. As a result, the evidence suggests that children’s exposure to HFSS ads is low - AA research showed that under-16s see less than 0.5 seconds of online HFSS ads per day, per child, and ASA research and rulings show that breaches of the rules are rare and often a result of human error. 


What does the evidence show?

No evidence has been produced to show that an outright ban of HFSS ads online would be effective at reducing obesity rates. The Government's Impact Assessment calculates that an online ban would reduce children’s calorie intake by around 2.5 calories per day, per child (and that assumes that children seeing even fewer ads would lead to a direct reduction in consuming HFSS products). The evidence of any beneficial impact on adults continues to be described by the Government as “not conclusive”. The existing restrictions on TV ads, that have been in place longer than those online, show significantly reduced ad exposure yet there has been no reduction in child obesity rates. 


Wouldn’t it be better for measures to focus more on the root causes of obesity? What else is the Government doing?

Obesity is caused by multiple and interdependent factors and addressing it needs a carefully thought-out approach that focuses on measures that will make a real difference. An ad ban is not the solution. The Government’s strategy does include some other measures not related to advertising such as encouraging people to lose weight; proposals for mandatory calorie labelling on menus and alcohol products; banning ‘volume’ promotions (e.g. buy one, get one free) for HFSS products and restricting their placement in retail ‘stores’ (including online).


OK, but doesn’t the industry have a part to play in reducing obesity?

Yes, and that’s why we took action in 2017 to put in place additional restrictions. Children (under 16s) are protected wherever and whenever they are online. But an outright online ad ban is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Regulation should be proportionate to the likely ‘harm’ that will be caused. Banning advertising of HFSS products online - even if some types of products are allowed - stands to have a big impact on the digital ecosystem without delivering any meaningful benefits. At a time of tentative economic recovery, the impact of the measures proposed needs to be weighed against the benefits - which are currently unproven.  


Is the IAB working with other trade bodies on this?

Yes. We are part of a group organised by the Advertising Association - including ISBA, the IPA and food and drink manufacturers - that has been working together to respond to these proposals. We continue to believe that the best approach is one that is developed collaboratively and that all parts of the digital advertising industry can support. 

If you have any questions about the Government’s HFSS proposals, please get in touch. Members of the IAB’s Regulatory Affairs & Public Policy Group receive regular updates containing all key developments on the HFSS proposals and other relevant matters. Contact us if you would like to be added to the Group, and stay engaged with the IAB for updates.

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