Advertising Standards Authority – Written evidence (GAM0059)


  1. Background and Introduction


1.1.                        This submission is provided by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) – the ‘ASA system.’


1.2.                        The ASA is the UK’s independent advertising regulator.  We have been administering the non-broadcast Advertising Code (written and maintained by CAP) for 56 years and the broadcast Advertising Code (written and maintained by BCAP) for 14, with our remit further extended in 2011 to include companies’ advertising claims on their own websites and in social media spaces under their control.

1.3.                        We are responsible for ensuring that advertising is legal, decent, honest and truthful and our work includes undertaking proactive projects and acting on complaints to take action against misleading, harmful or offensive advertisements.  We are committed to evidence-based regulation and we continually review new evidence to ensure the rules remain fit-for-purpose.


1.4.                        In addition to investigating ads, we also provide a wealth of training and advice services (most of which are free) for advertisers, agencies and media to help them understand their responsibilities under the Codes and to ensure that fewer problem ads appear in the first place.  CAP and BCAP provided over 500,000 pieces of advice and training in 2018.


1.5.                        The ASA’s five year strategy, More Impact Online, emphasises our commitment to strengthening further the regulation of online ads. This includes exploring new technological solutions, including machine learning, to improve our regulation.


1.6.                        The ASA is providing this written submission in response to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Social and Economic lmpact of the Gambling Industry.


1.7.                        Under 18s are accorded special protection under the law, operators’ licences provisions and our Codes.


1.8.                        The ASA regulates gambling advertising under the umbrella of the Gambling Act 2005 and through collective regulation with the Gambling Commission and Ofcom.


1.9.                        In a nutshell, we set and enforce rules to ensure that gambling ads (wherever they appear) don’t undermine safe gambling and are socially responsible.  The rules do that by


1.10.                   We monitor and report on compliance with our rules, including through innovative Avatar technology, which the Secretary of State recently acknowledged as [quote]


1.11.                   We monitor and report on children’s exposure to gambling ads on TV, which indicates that children’s exposure to TV ads for gambling is declining.


1.12.                   We have an excellent track-record of reviewing and responding to the best available evidence relating to gambling advertising, which has led us to recently implement and act on strengthened guidance in relation to problem gambling and protection of under 18s.


1.13.                   We are publically committed to responding to the latest evidence commissioned by the advisory board for safe gambling.


1.14.     We would be happy to provide oral evidence if the Committee wishes.



  1. Setting and enforcing advertising standards


2.1.          The ASA acknowledges the public concerns around the potential impact of gambling on children. This is why we have tough restrictions when it comes to gambling advertising.


2.2.          The ASA is the UK’s frontline regulator for ads across all media, including online ads; we regulate companies’ claims on their own websites, and ads in social media and apps.


2.3.          We’re supported by a range of expert statutory backstops, who can assist us, where necessary, to bring non-compliant advertisers into compliance. For gambling advertising, our statutory backstops include Ofcom for broadcast gambling ads, and the Gambling Commission for non-broadcast gambling ads.


2.4.          Together, this ‘collective regulation’ helps to protect people and responsible business from irresponsible online ads: ads that mislead harm or offend their audience.


2.5.          The ASA’s role is to prohibit irresponsible marketing. The strict rules on the content and targeting of gambling ads apply and are enforced just as rigorously online as on TV. This includes advertising claims on companies’ own websites, social media spaces and advergames.


2.6.          Crucially, gambling ads mustn’t be directed at children. Ads can’t portray gambling in a way that’s socially irresponsible or could lead to financial, social or emotional harm. They can’t exploit children or other vulnerable people, including through advertising content which appeals particularly to young people or which reflects youth culture. Amongst other restrictions, ads can’t suggest gambling provides an ‘escape’, can solve financial worries, or can enhance personal qualities.


2.7.          The ASA works to ensure that gambling is advertised responsibly. We continually review the rules, taking into account evidence about the impact of gambling advertising on potential problem behaviour as well as gauging wider societal concerns to ensure that they remain effective.


2.8.          In February 2018, CAP and BCAP published a dedicated piece of guidance on gambling advertising, setting new standards to ensure that ads are safe and with a particular focus on mitigating potential harms associated with problem gambling. The new guidance focuses on the ‘tone’ of ads. In essence, advertisers must be more careful with the messages they use. Based on evidence, we targeted risk factors (presented in advertising claims, imagery or other marketing approaches) that could unduly influence vulnerable groups to behave irresponsibly.


2.9.          Significant new provisions in the guidance include:







2.10.     In February 2019, we published a report that showed that in recent years, children’s exposure to TV ads for gambling is declining.


2.11.     Children’s exposure to all TV ads peaked in 2013 (229.3 ads per week) and declined, year-on-year, to 161.2 ads per week in 2017; a reduction of 29.7%. Over the same period, children’s exposure to TV ads for gambling decreased by 37.3%.


2.12.     We have also undertaken joint work with the Gambling Commission to protect children, for example, we took joint-enforcement action against gambling operators who we advised to amend or remove immediately any ads on their website or in third party media that are:




2.13.     Following our ‘cease and desist’ letter aimed at companies who used cartoon imagery in breach of our rules, online gambling operators took the necessary action to comply with our rules.


2.14.     Examples of some of our recent rulings on gambling advertising include:







2.15.               The gambling industry have also undertaken a voluntary whistle-to-whistle ban on ads shown during live sporting events before the 9pm watershed.


Gambling by young people and children

  1. How are new forms of technology, including social media, affecting children’s experiences of gambling? How are these experiences affecting gambling behaviour now, and how might they affect behaviour in the future?



3.1.          The evidence suggests that exposure to gambling ads that comply with the UK’s Advertising Codes is, of itself, unlikely to harm under-18s. Targeted restrictions are still required, however, to address the potential risks associated with irresponsible advertising. While our review of the evidence suggests to us and our regulatory partners that the core advertising rules are generally in the right place, CAP has introduced new standards to strengthen how they apply in practice. This includes:









3.2.          In April 2019, the ASA published the results of a project which used new monitoring technology in the form of child avatars (simulated consumers) to uncover which ads they see online.  While the ASA has regulated online ads for many years, this strand of work heralds the beginning of a new phase in the ASA’s regulation as part of its new five year strategy on having more impact online. 


3.3.          We worked with an expert data, analytics and technology consultancy to create seven online avatars.  Their profiles were designed to reflect the browsing characteristics of children aged 6-7, 8-12 and 16 (a teenage avatar), an adult, a person of an indeterminate age, and a profile reflecting the browsing behaviour of an adult and a child using the same device.


3.4.          Between 26 November – 9 December 2018 the avatars:







3.5.          As a consequence of this work, we have already taken action to ban ads from five gambling operators which were served to the child avatars on children’s websites in clear breach of the UK Advertising Codes.


3.6.          The gambling operators have accepted their ads broke the rules. In most instances, we were informed that the problems arose due to errors by third-party companies who served the campaigns on behalf of the operators. We instructed the companies to take immediate action to review their online ads, ensure they are not served to web users aged below 18 years of age through the selection of media or context in which they appear and to put in place measures to ensure this does not happen again.


3.7.          The avatar research is a breakthrough in harnessing technology to provide the ASA with intelligence to help it better protect children and vulnerable groups.  The new approach is part of wider efforts to ensure action can be taken against unsafe ads without the need for members of the public having first to suffer harm and raise a complaint. The Secretary of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “This is an excellent example of how technology can play a pivotal role in tackling online harms, and I congratulate the ASA on this innovative approach to ensure that rules to protect children from online gambling advertising are enforced.”


3.8.          The findings from the avatar research provide a snapshot of the ads that children are seeing online, with invaluable data and real examples of where ads for age-restricted products are appearing.  They are also enabling speedy action to enforce the rules in respect of the small number of ads which are found to be targeted irresponsibly.


3.9.          The ASA is now exploring whether the approach can be extended to logged-in environments like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


6 September 2019