Four ads for the mobile phone operator Three and the LG G4 handset: A YouTube video; a banner ad appearing on YouTube; and two pre-roll ads on YouTube.
a. A five minute YouTube video ad, seen in August 2015, opened with the following text Warning the following film contains scenes of a disturbing nature. Viewer discretion advised. Restricted. Suitable for viewers aged 15 and over . It featured the 15 classification. The ad featured a purple puppet, Jackson, in a car with his human companion, Steve, driving into the woods. The ad cut to a black screen with white writing which said In 2015, Three went into the woods to test the new LG G4. This is what they found . The ad continued to follow Steve into the woods where he saw a mysterious rusting vehicle in the overgrowth. As he approached the vehicle, a doll jumped up at the window, which in turn, made Steve jump. The doll was brandished by Jackson who laughed and said Gotcha Steve! and it’s only a bit of fun . Next, Jackson was highlighting the features of the camera and viewers saw a small voodoo style doll hanging down amongst the trees to the right of the shot. Steve pointed this out to Jackson who immediately approached it with the words I love it! Ooooo! . Jackson pulled its leg in delight and said Look, it’s a skellington Steve!…
b. A banner ad which appeared on 4 August 2015 at the top of the YouTube home page and was a shorter version of ad (a) featured Jackson and Steve. Text at the beginning of the ad stated Three went into the woods. This is what they found . The ad ended and on the left-hand side, it stated Click to watch (if you dare) and on the right-hand side, it included an embedded video link to ad (a).
c. & d. Two pre-roll ads on YouTube for the same product featured brief clips of ad (a) and at the end of each ad, it stated Click to watch if you dare , which was a hyperlink to ad (a).
The ASA received three complaints.
One complainant, whose 12-year-old child saw either ad (c) or (d) before a YouTube video, and clicked on the link and was taken to ad (a) and subsequently became distressed by it, challenged whether ad (a) was irresponsible and likely to cause fear and distress to children who saw it.
One complainant, whose 10-year-old child saw ad (b) and clicked on the link and was taken to ad (a), challenged whether ad (b) had been responsibly targeted because it was accessible to children.
One complainant, whose 5-year-old child saw ad (c) before a Minecraft video and became distressed by the ad, challenged whether it had been responsibly targeted because it appeared before a video which was likely to appeal to children.
ASA Assessment: Complaints upheld
The ASA noted the complainant’s concerns and understood that their child had been distressed by the ad. We also acknowledged the ad included a warning that stated clearly that it was suitable for viewers aged 15 and over and that text underneath the video on the YouTube page highlighted that the content was scary.
Although we considered the ad did not show any acts of violence towards Jackson or Steve, it did create and maintain a heightened sense of suspense throughout. We considered Steve was presented as apprehensive and hyper-vigilant during the ad as to what Jackson and he might find in the woods. The suspense climaxed on several occasions during the ad such as when Steve reeled back from the mysterious rusting vehicle in the overgrowth when the doll jumped up at the window; the voodoo style doll dangling from a tree; the shadowy figure crossing in front of them while they were in the tent; and the girl in the bed who leapt towards the camera and then scurried away across the ceiling. We considered Steve’s fear at being in the woods culminated in the final scenes of the ad when he was shown screaming while running through the woods trying to escape.
We considered 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. However, we considered younger viewers were likely to be distressed by some of the scenes, most notably where the girl leapt towards the camera and had blood pouring out of her mouth.
The ad included a warning to state that it contained scenes of a disturbing nature and that viewer discretion was advised. Given this, we considered that Three needed to take steps to reduce the likelihood of the ad being served and shown to younger viewers (i.e. under 15s) when they were using YouTube.
We understood that the ad had been kept away from YouTube content which was suitable for children and videos with gaming content unless they were relevant to the target audience. However, we understood from Three that 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: over 18s, even if they were not signed into their account. We noted the intended audience and that targeting was based on the viewing histories of YouTube users. Nevertheless, we considered there was the possibility the ad could still be served to children.
By featuring the warning in the ad, we considered Three recognised it might cause distress to younger viewers. We considered also that there could, however, be a risk that younger viewers would continue to watch the ad regardless of the warning. Moreover, we considered the ad’s prolonged and heightened sense of suspense was likely to cause undue fear and distress to children. We concluded the combination of the ad’s content, and the possibility that the warning would be ignored, meant that ad (a) was likely to cause distress to those younger viewers who saw it. We acknowledged the steps Three had taken to reduce the likelihood of children seeing the ad and we recognised that it was unlikely that they could take steps to prevent all under 15s from seeing the ad. However, we understood that it would have been possible for Three to limit 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. In that respect, we considered applying that additional option would have further reduced the likelihood of children being served and watching the ad. While Three had taken steps to target the ad, we concluded nevertheless that it had not been targeted appropriately.
We understood the complainant’s 10-year-old child had become distressed by ad (a), having watched ad (b) and clicking through to ad (a. It was our understanding from Three that ad (b) 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) on the day it appeared. Therefore, we understood that ad (a), which had been embedded at the end of ad (b), was also available to all YouTube users.
While the content of ad (b) included scenes from ad (a), we considered that its content was milder. However, ad (b) included an invitation for viewers to click here – if you dare and an embedded version of ad (a), which played if clicked on. From the information and content presented in ad (b), we considered children were unlikely to understand that ad (a) might be unsuitable for them, given that they had been able to access and watch ad (b). Ad (a)’s warning appeared after the user had clicked on the embedded video and as noted above, we considered that made clear that its contents were not suitable for under-15s. Notwithstanding that, ad (b) was available to all YouTube users, including those who were not signed into their account. In those particular circumstances — where all YouTube users were served ad (b) and could click through to ad (a) — we considered the phrase click here if you dare and the warning which appeared after users clicked through to ad (a) were insufficient to prevent YouTube users under the age of 15 from continuing to watch ad (a). For those reasons, we concluded that ad (b) had not been responsibly targeted and therefore, it breached the Code.
One complainant’s child saw ad (c) before a YouTube video featuring the Minecraft character I am Goldenpants . We noted Three’s comments that YouTube did not regard Minecraft to be children’s content and we understood that depending on the edition of the game, PEGI (Pan European Gaming Information) had given it various age ratings from 7 to 12. Although it was our understanding that the game Minecraft did not have an audience that comprised exclusively of children, we also understood that it was, nevertheless, very popular among them. Given that, we considered YouTube videos that featured Minecraft gaming content were likely to be of particular interest to children.
We noted ad (a) could be accessed via ad (c) by way of hyperlinked text that stated click to watch if you dare . As stated above in point 2, we considered young children were unlikely to interpret that statement as a warning about ad (a)’s content or properly acknowledge it, given they had been served and had been able to watch ad (c), which featured much milder content.
While we recognised Three had identified and restricted content before which ad (c) should not be shown, the ad still appeared before a video that we considered went beyond broad appeal to YouTube users and was highly likely to be of appeal or interest to children. In that context, we considered that ad (c) had not been targeted appropriately and therefore, it was in breach of the Code.
We told Three to ensure that future ads which were unsuitable for viewing by children were appropriately targeted.