Cadbury UK has been forced to axe its latest marketing campaign after being accused of inciting children to loot treasures from cultural heritage sites, as reported by the Institute of Art and Law.

The webpage advertising Cadbury Freddo Treasures encouraged children to “grab a metal detector” and hunt for relics at a number of archaeological sites in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland where “treasure is fair game”. It might have been an innocent attempt at capturing the hearts of wannabe Indiana Joneses, but, as the Institute of Art and Law points out, it was dangerously ill-informed.

Treasure-hunting and the excavation of archaeological sites is heavily regulated in the UK and in some instances illegal. Permission to metal detect must always be sought from the landowner in England, Wales and Scotland while in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the Secretary of State and Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht respectively must issue licences before archaeological excavation including metal detecting can be undertaken.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme strongly encourages the recording of finds in England and Wales and those though to be treasure must be reported to the coroner within 14 days of their discovery under the Treasure Act 1996. If an item is confirmed to be treasure, it is valued and offered to museums for purchase. Only where no museum buyer is found is the item returned to the finder. In Scotland, the law is even more protective as all archaeological finds are deemed treasure and must be reported.

As for the list of archaeological hotspots Cadbury listed on its webpage as ripe for digging, these are scheduled as monuments under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, which applies in England and Wales. The Secretary of State must consent before metal detecting or excavation of any kind can take place on a scheduled monument. A similar law applies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Not only did Cadbury treasure hunters risk falling foul of laws protecting ancient sites and artefacts, but they could have also been liable to claims for trespass and theft brought by private landowners. Defending its campaign, Cadbury stated that it “aim[ed] to inspire families to go on everyday adventures together” and that it was “not [its] intention to encourage anyone to break existing regulations”.

The campaign sparked a massive backlash among archaeologists and museum professionals who branded it irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Bolton Museum curator, Ian Trumble, tweeted that Cadbury’s “shocking, ill-advised” marketing strategy threatened to unravel years of public education around cultural heritage protection by “promot[ing] the gleeful destruction of archaeological sites”.

Cadbury removed the webpage in March but the Advertising Standards Authority is currently assessing whether or not to launch an investigation after receiving approximately 30 complaints.