A new consultation has been launched on proposals to ban online ads for HFSS products, as part of the government’s tackling obesity strategy announced in July. The consultation, which will run for six weeks, will gather views from the public and industry to understand the impact and challenges of the proposed ban.

The consultation follows reports that YouTube "kidfluencers" are responsible for the promotion of "staggering" levels of junk food to children through paid ads, based on research published in the US showing that 42% of the most popular videos of those influencers promoted food and drinks, and over 90% of those products shown were unhealthy branded foods, drinks or fast food toys. The UK government has estimated that children aged under 16 were exposed to 15bn HFSS impressions online in 2019, compared with an estimated 0.7bn impressions two years earlier, and noted that there has been a 450% increase in spend on online food and drink advertising from 2010 to 2017. The government has already taken steps to prohibit HFSS ads from being shown on TV before 9 p.m.

The proposed ban would apply to all online marketing communications that are either intended to or likely to come to the attention of the UK consumers and which have the effect of promoting identifiable HFSS products (subject to some limited exceptions for factual claims and communications facilitating online sales). It would therefore cover a wide range of marketing communications, from commercial e-mails and texts, activities in non-paid for space (e.g. on own website or social media) and display ads in paid-for space (e.g. banner ads and pre/mid-roll video ads), to paid-for search listings, paid-for social media ads (e.g. influencer content) and in-game ads. 

The UK government has also proposed that advertisers which sell or promote an identifiable HFSS product or operate a brand synonymous with HFSS products should be required to set controls which ensure HFSS product posts can only be found by users actively seeking them on advertisers own social media pages (e.g. through use of privacy settings).

If implemented, these proposals would represent the toughest digital marketing restrictions in this area in the world. 

Breaches of the new rules would be enforced by the ASA, but the UK government has indicated that stronger statutory penalties would be introduced if this approach failed or were committing repeated or severe breaches, which it envisages would include civil sanctions such as the ability to issue fines.

The industry has been critical of the ban, which has been labelled by organisations such as the IPA and AA as "draconian" and "misguided, unfounded and totally ineffective". The AA, Isba, IPA and IAB UK have also released a joint statement, which notes that the ban will be a "huge blow" to UK advertising an will do "untold harm to the UK's vitally important creative sector and food and drink businesses at an economically precarious time". The latest AA/Warc Expenditure Report expects a 10% decline in spend over the fourth quarter of this year (and not the usual increased spend associated with the festive period) and any ban could cost British advertisers as much as £200m in lost revenue.

The government's response to this consultation will be published on the GOV.UK website, which will set out the action that will be taken. Should you wish to respond to the consultation, you can do so via SurveyOptic (the government's consultation hub) or by e-mail responses to: childhood.obesity@dhsc.gov.uk