Avatars and the ASA: Utilising technology by "minimising children’s exposure to age restricted ads"

By Isabella Aslam

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has investigated how advertisements are being served online through websites and YouTube channels with a mixed-age audience. With the use of a proactive monitoring sweep utilising Avatar technology, the ASA is stamping down on advertisers to encourage a more responsible use of audience and media targeting tools. The nucleus is to help minimise children’s exposure to age-restricted ads in mixed-age sites.

This project was mainly focused on monitoring two main circumstances, those being: mixed-age online media, consisting of non-logged-in websites and YouTube channels with adults comprising 75%-90% of the audience. The other concern was advertisements serving alcohol, gambling and high fat, salt or sugar HFSS products. Due to the advancements of technology, advertisers are able to target individuals at an unfair advantage via audience-based stored data and saved preferences, according to the findings. 

The ASA used online Avatars to identify trends and understand how such ads are being delivered to adult, child and/or age-unknown audience groups, all constructing the reflection of online browsing profiles. The Avatars were split into six uniquely aged categories, these were: six to seven-year-olds, eight to 12-year-olds, neutral profiles, adults and shared profiles. They were used to visit 250 web pages on both desktop and mobile devices over a three-week monitoring period. The data gives a basis for assessing whether age-restricted ads are being targeted away from children in online media.

Noticeably less

The findings saw that gambling ads were subjected to child and adult Avatars in broadly similar numbers, with no significant aim to target adult browsers only. The neutral Avatar (with zero browsing history to provide unanimity) was served with noticeably less gambling ads in mixed-aged media. It was found that HFSS ads were served in broadly similar numbers to child and adult Avatars, these ads were considerably high in the direction of the neutral Avatar. There were no alcohol ads served to any Avatars whatsoever.   

It is not permitted to serve age-restricted ads on children's media sites or channels where the audience makes up 25% of viewing or browsing. These ads, however, are allowed in mixed-age media attracting a heavily weighted 75% adult audience.

Advertising Standards Authority Chief Executive, Guy Parker, said: “We call on advertisers to make better use of targeting tools to minimise children’s exposure to dynamically served age-restricted ads.

"And we call on third parties involved in the distribution of these ads to ensure the data and modelling on which those tools rely are as effective as they can be. Finally, we will be exploring whether the report should lead to more prescriptive measures relating to dynamically served age-restricted ads. This latest monitoring sweep is just one part of a wider set of initiatives where we’re harnessing technology, all with the aim of ensuring children are protected online.”

The ASA believes it to be a legitimate regulatory objective in actively minimising children’s exposure to age-restricted ads. The aim is for advertisers to utilise available tools effectively and efficiently, and target their ads away from children even where the vast majority of an audience is over 18 years. This project, in line with a previous year-long project by the ASA, named ‘Protecting Children Online’, tackles age-restricted ads appearing in children’s media. Both these tasks are prime examples of how the ASA uses innovative technology to better protect children online.


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