Insights Advertising Standards Authority publishes findings from project to identify trends in the targeting of ads by alcohol brands on social media


The ASA collaborated with five major platforms popular with children to identify trends in the targeting of ads by alcohol brands in logged-in social media. This is the latest ASA report on minimising children’s exposure to age-restricted ads. In this case, the ASA focused on children falsely registered as, or incorrectly inferred to be, 18 or older on social media. Unlike previous reports, which used tech-based monitoring tools to identify and tackle age-restricted ads in children’s websites and YouTube channels, for this project the ASA worked with social media platforms.

Between 1 February 2020 and 31 March 2020, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube submitted brand-anonymised targeting data to the ASA relating to over 2,000 alcohol campaigns run on their platforms.

The ASA identified several incidences of good practices. For example, several alcohol campaigns targeted people who were 25+, minimising the possibility of reaching child account holders. However, the ASA also found that some alcohol brands could and should have done more to minimise the possibility of their ads being delivered to children.

Overall, the ASA identified eight key insights on targeting practices, including:

  • a handful of ad campaigns did not appear to use any age targeting at all, which the ASA said was very concerning and totally at odds with the letter and spirit of the UK advertising rules and guidance;
  • for the majority that selected an age 18+ audience, many did not select any “interests” options to give greater confidence in reaching an adult, rather than a child;
  • there was limited evidence of advertisers actively barring their ads from being targeted to audience groups with interests in topics and themes very strongly associated with under 18s;
  • specifically, the ASA assessed how alcohol brands targeted their ads based on age and audiences’ online interests to see if the selections made were in line with Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) guidance, which cautions advertisers of age-restricted ads from relying on age-range targeting options only; this effectively requires them to make “interests” selections to ensure their ads are targeted to an adult audience and away from children.

The ASA said that it will draw the report’s findings to the attention of the alcohol industry, praising good practice where appropriate, but telling it to more strictly observe the guidance.

The ASA noted that platforms take a range of steps to age-verify their users. Ofcom research indicates, however, that a significant minority of children are registered on social media with a false date of birth, with the likelihood that some of these children will be registered as being 18+.

By sharing the anonymised data with the ASA, the platforms helped uncover important insights into the extent to which alcohol brands are using the tools available to them (which differ from platform-to-platform) to target their ads away from children.

Importantly, the ASA said, the report does not identify if alcohol ads were ultimately delivered to the social media accounts of children, because it does not know if any of the brands used other data, e.g., their own first party data, to lessen the possibility of their ads being delivered to them.

The ASA is now conducting a follow-up monitoring and enforcement project, which will work with a nationally representative group of around 100 children to identify whether, in reality, they receive age-restricted ads in their social media accounts. To read the ASA’s press release in full and for a link to the report, click here.