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HFSS Regulation: How Much Will It Impact Advertising?

In December the UK Government began a consultation to implement a complete ban on digital advertising for High Fat, Salt, and Sugar (HFSS) foods through HFSS regulation. This policy was announced over a year ago but delayed due to COVID and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis. However, the plan has not been completely abandoned and these new rules are due to come into effect on 1 October 2025.

The Government made clear that industry had failed to provide sufficient data to back up its claim that these adverts were currently being directed away from children and the platforms had not persuaded ministers that their knowledge of the age of their users was sufficiently comprehensive or robust to allow them to exclude children from exposure to these ads.

The policy sent shock waves through the advertising industry as well as those who manufacture and retail HFSS foods. Keep in mind, this is a wide category including everything from crisps to chocolate and many more of the products that are regularly advertised online. It is estimated that £4.6 billion is spent advertising these products on the internet in the UK, with a further £66 million spent on advertising agencies. While much of this spend would be diverted to conventional advertising, it is obviously a massive hit for the websites that rely on advertising to fund their activities.

It’s not too late to avoid this massive loss if online platforms can persuade the government that they do have the capability to prevent children from seeing adverts for HFSS foods. To do this, the platforms would need to create a subset of their audience which has been verified as being over 18. Typically, most people think that age verification will require a user to dig out their passport or to provide a great deal of personal information to allow their age to be checked. But by using services such as those provided by W2 with the ability to customise age thresholds, it may not be necessary to involve the user at all.

Most platforms already hold a great deal of data about their users which may enable their age to be ascertained already. W2’s waterfall approach means that we will attempt to confirm the age of a user using multiple different methods comment depending on what data is already available. Only in the very unlikely chance those approaches fail, does a platform have the option to ask the user to provide additional information to confirm their age.

Of course, involving the user is not a requirement but if the age cannot be verified then the user should not be added to the audience that is defined as confirmed adults. So, even without any user activity, current platforms should be able to build a substantial audience that can be offered to advertisers of HFSS and other age restricted goods and services such as gambling. Of course, in some cases this would merit a premium pricing model because there is little point in advertising services to children if it is illegal for them to make use of the service on offer, creating the potential for the exercise to pay for itself.

It is not just HFSS regulation that suggest this is a sensible step for platforms. The EU Digital Services Act is coming into force and prevents the targeting of ads through the use of artificial intelligence to profile users if they are children.  Now the entire basis of online advertising is the ability to target users who are more likely to wish to buy the products concerned. If children cannot be removed from this process, then ads must be shown indiscriminately to all users, so are no more targeted than a poster at the side of the M4 flyover into London.

With a wide range of age verification options drawing on a multitude of data sources, W2 is confident that it can check the ages of vast numbers of users without any need for further personal data. 

We can do so with a certified degree of accuracy defined in international standards, allowing platforms to make a very strong case to Government that they have put in place the measures necessary to offer advertisers an adult only audience with a high degree of confidence. HFSS regulation is causing huge headaches within the industry, so it is important to act now.

For more information on W2’s age verification capabilities, contact us here.

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