Who: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)
Where: United Kingdom
When: 27 July 2016
Law stated as at: 9 August 2016
Hutchinson 3G UK (trading as Three) created a YouTube video; a banner ad appearing on YouTube; and two pre-roll ads on YouTube to promote itself and the LG G4 handset. The campaign was the subject of three complaints to the ASA as the complainants’ children, ranging from five to twelve years old, had seen the ads and become distressed by their content. The ASA was therefore asked to investigate: (a) whether the ads were irresponsible; (b) likely to cause fear and distress to children who saw them; and (c) had therefore been responsibly targeted because they were accessible to children and in some cases appeared before videos which were likely to appeal to children (such as those featuring Minecraft characters).
The content of the ads
The five minute YouTube video ad opened with the text “Warning the following film contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Viewer discretion advised. Restricted. Suitable for viewers aged 15 and over”. It also featured the BBFC 15 classification. The ad featured a purple puppet, Jackson, in a car with his human companion, Steve, driving into the woods. The ad contained scenes intended to be spooky in nature such as a mysterious rusting vehicle in the overgrowth which contained a doll that jumped up at the window, a voodoo style doll hanging down amongst the trees, a shadowy figure flashing across the screen, an animal skull hanging down from a tree and a young child that leaps towards the camera and then scuttled across the ceiling.
The banner ad which appeared at the top of the YouTube home page consisted of a shorter version of the video ad which also had a link to the five minute video ad with the words “Click to watch (if you dare)”. The two pre-roll ads on YouTube for the same product featured brief clips of the five minute video ad and at the end of each ad stated “Click to watch if you dare” with a hyperlink to the main ad.
Three’s response to the ASA
Three voluntarily sought a British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) classification for the ad and displayed it prominently at the start of the ad. In doing so, they said they hoped that supervised children watching YouTube videos would not see the ad and that any unsupervised children would be protected by the online filters set up by their parents. They said they also created the ad in such a way that it did not include any violent scenes, just mystery, and therefore the ad did not include any explicit “on-screen” horror. They considered the warnings in the video and on the YouTube page on which the video appeared made clear the nature of the video and that it might not be suitable for all. It felt this was a responsible way to warn viewers that the five minute video ads content was not suitable for children, particularly on YouTube where they would not expect young children to be browsing without supervision anyway.
All ads other than the banner ad were served to YouTube users based on “inferred targeting”. This practice involves YouTube creating a profile of each of its users based on their individual viewing habits which are tracked and then assist to categorise each user. If a YouTube user’s profile fitting the targeted demographic Three was aiming for (in this case over-18s) then that user could be served the ad.
Three said the warning and film classification logo were similar to those shown before films at the cinema and before television programmes and as such, they believed it was unreasonable for a child to ignore them in ads. They felt that children who ignored such warnings were aware that they were breaking the rules and that similar warnings displayed at the cinema and TV generally safeguarded the cinema/broadcaster from sanctions because they had acted responsibly in issuing the warning. They said that for younger children, who may not understand such warnings, it was the parents’ responsibility not to allow them to surf the internet unsupervised. Where the video pre-roll ads were concerned, Three suggested these ads might have been served to the children in question as a result of ‘inferred targeting’ because the ads might have reflected those children’s viewing habits and so they would be less likely to be shocked by the ads’ content.
Where the ‘inferred targeting’ was concerned, Three took additional steps to seek appropriate targeting of their ads and thus ensure the pre-roll ads were automatically excluded from being shown before YouTube content that had not yet been age-rated. They were also excluded from the following categories of videos: content suitable for families (i.e. child content); live streaming videos; games unless they were relevant to the target audience (e.g. teens and stay at home parents). They were excluded further from content about the following topics of videos: People & Society – religion and belief; Law & Government – military; Reference – humanities, history; World localities – Asia, West Asia, Iraq/Iran/Syria/Jordan/Russia & CIS, Middle East and northern Africa. With all these steps and warnings issued around this advertising campaign, Three felt they had taken reasonable measures to avoid under-15s from seeing their pre-roll ads and the main five minute video ad.
Did the ASA agree?
No it didn’t. All three complaints were upheld by the ASA for the following reasons:
- Although the ASA considered the ad did not show any acts of violence towards its characters, it did create and maintain a heightened sense of suspense throughout culminated in the final scenes of the ad when the main character was shown screaming while running through the woods trying to escape. The ad’s content was not excessively shocking for viewers who were 15 years old and above and therefore, it was unlikely to cause distress to them but younger viewers were likely to be distressed.
- Despite the ad’s warning to state that it contained scenes of a disturbing nature and that viewer discretion was advised, Three needed to take steps to reduce the likelihood of the ad being served and shown to younger viewers when they were using YouTube. Although the ad was subject to inferred targeting, which meant it would have been served to YouTube users whose viewing history suggested they fitted within the intended demographic, there was still the possibility the ad could still be served to children.
- By featuring the warning in the ad, Three recognised it might cause distress to younger viewers and there was always the risk younger viewers would continue to watch the ad regardless of the warning. The ad’s prolonged and heightened sense of suspense was likely to cause undue fear and distress to children so the combination of the ad’s content, and the possibility that the warning would be ignored, meant the main ad was likely to cause distress to those younger viewers who saw it. The ASA felt Three should have limited the targeting of the ad so that it was only served to YouTube users signed into accounts belonging to those who had declared themselves to be over the age of 15 for the ad to have been targeted appropriately.
- While the banner ad (which contained milder content) could not be subjected to any means of targeting and was served to all YouTube users (regardless of whether or not they had signed into their account), the main video ad had been embedded at the end of the banner ad content and so was therefore also available to all YouTube users. The ad’s invitation for viewers to “click here – if you dare” and an embedded version of the main ad which played if clicked on meant that children were unlikely to understand the longer version of the ad might be unsuitable for them, given that they had been able to access to watch the ad. Three’s steps taken were therefore insufficient to prevent YouTube users under the age of 15 from continuing to watch the five minute video ad.
- Where the pre-roll ads were concerned, although Minecraft did not have an audience comprised exclusively of children, it was, nevertheless, very popular with children. The ASA was therefore of the opinion that YouTube videos featuring Minecraft gaming content were likely to be of particular interest to children. While Three had identified and restricted content before which the ads should not be shown, the ad still appeared before a video the ASA considered went “beyond broad appeal to YouTube users and was highly likely to be of appeal or interest to children” so the ad had not been targeted appropriately.
Why this matters:
Appropriate targeting is becoming increasingly important not just in the context of online customer tracking and segmentation, but also from a compliance perspective. This adjudication shows that while Three took active steps to seek to ensure that their ads were targeted at those over 15, their warnings and steps were not enough. YouTube reviewed the ads and believed they complied with their Community Guidelines and Advertising policies but stressed the responsibility for appropriately targeting ads through their AdWords system and complying with the CAP Code sits with the advertiser. Where warnings are concerned, the BBFC itself had acknowledged that their classification scheme relies on parents monitoring what their children are watching and/or using parental filters to catch any inappropriate content. It is therefore important that brands do not rely on inferred targeting methods in isolation, but consider the content around which their campaigns may feature and whether there are other ways an online audience can be more precisely targeted especially where their campaign materials feature content that is for adults only or could in some way cause offence or distress if sent to or accessed by the wrong audience.