a billboard advert for McDonald's shows three burgers. Words painted onto the billboard read "Eating processed meat causes cancer. WEeDon't care. Give us your money."

On World Health Day, don’t forget the harmful effects of advertising

Today is the 75th World Health Day and we are joining the World Health Organisation to call for health for all.

The right to health is a basic human right, however our health is all too often threatened by the products we see advertised to us everyday, products like fast food, fast fashion and polluting vehicles. 

Junk food advertising

One clear example of how advertising infringes on our rights to live healthy lives is junk food advertising. 

McDonald’s, Coca Cola and KFC are amongst the biggest spenders on outdoor advertising. In 2022, these three companies alone spent over £150,000,000 on outdoor advertising. 

Billboards advertising unhealthy food are often concentrated in poorer areas and areas with a higher proportion of overweight children, and the higher the percentage of outdoor advertisements promoting HFSS foods, the greater the likelihood of obesity in the area. 

Consequently, children in the most deprived areas of the UK are approximately twice as likely to be obese. 

In 2021, Bristol City Council adopted an Advertising and Sponsorship Policy which banned junk food ads on council-owned ad sites across the city. 

Similarly, a ban on junk food advertising across the Transport for London network has reduced purchasing of unhealthy food and drinks, reduced cases of obesity and is expected to save the NHS £200 million, whilst resulting in no loss of revenue for TfL. 

a billboard advert for McDonald's shows three burgers. Words painted onto the billboard read "Eating processed meat causes cancer. WEeDon't care. Give us your money."

Selling sexism

The impacts of sexist marketing, especially on the young, have been well documented. Eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia have increased in the UK: doubling between 2010 and 2017 with a particular surge amongst teenage girls and women in their early 20s. 

The constant portrayal of unrealistic beauty and body images in social media, using similar airbrushing and alteration techniques to advertising, has led to a rise in cosmetic surgery requests.

More widely, sexist advertising can lead to a culture of entitlement. Advertising is unavoidable in public space, and the presence of women’s bodies in many forms of advertising reminds women, at a conscious and subconscious level, of their vulnerability and need to conform to specific ideas of femininity and masculinity in order to remain safe. 

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has previously called on member states to ensure all media, including advertising, does not promote harmful gender stereotypes. 

A woman poses with her two middle fingers raised in front of a large advert showing a woman in a bikini and the text "are you beach body ready?"

Advertising the climate crisis

The role of advertising in driving the climate crisis is increasingly recognised. 

Research by Purpose Disruptors has found that in 2022, advertising contributed 208 million tonnes of CO2 to the UK’s carbon footprint, an extra 30% on what would be the case without advertising. 

This is because advertising, by design, convinces us to buy products and services which are all too often harmful to the planet. These include sports utility vehicles (SUVs), fast fashion, electronics and flights. 

Every year 2 million tonnes of electronic waste goes to landfill, often in countries in the Global South, and one quarter of items in the average Briton’s wardrobe have never been worn even as the people who make those garments often do so in terrible conditions. 

Globally, SUV sales are rising dangerously fast. Bigger, heavier and more polluting, the increase in SUV sales has cancelled out efficiency savings in traditional motor vehicle engines, resulting in emissions from road transport actually rising. 

People hold brushes whilst standing in front of a billboard. on the board is a poster that reads "not enough trees"

What we can do about it

Maria Neira, WHO Director of Public Health and Climate, has called for tobacco-style restrictions on advertising for high carbon products. 

“Fossil fuels are the new tobacco: we need the same tools as against tobacco. We need to fight against their lobbying, against their advertisements, against their glamorisation. We need a legally binding treaty on fossil fuels that goes even further than tobacco. In the name of health.”

– Maria Neira, comments at COP27. 

The WHO further recommends that across the world we shift from economies driven by profit and pollution to economies driven by fairness and well-being, where success is measured by the well-being of people and healthy environments and individuals and communities are empowered to participate in healthy lifestyles. 

At Adfree Cities, we are working with local councils across the UK to introduce ethical advertising policies which would restrict the kinds of products that can be advertised on council-owned advertising spaces like bus stops. 

You can help us do this. Check out our resources on contacting your local councillor to ask for change where you live. 

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