Image shows a poster in a bus stop ad panel on a busy street. The ad is for McDonald's.

New evidence of outdoor ad harm supports Adfree Cities’ work

Two newly published studies support the claims of Adfree Cities that outdoor advertising for harmful products is widespread and that local council action to reduce and regulate advertising is an effective public health measure.

One study, available here, found that just under two thirds of local authorities in England do not have specific policies limiting or regulating advertising for harmful products like junk food, gambling, alcohol and tobacco on council-owned ad sites.

A second study measured exposure to ads for such products in Bristol ahead of the introduction by Bristol City Council in 2022 of a new Advertising and Sponsorship policy banning such ads from council-owned advertising sites. Most concerningly, the results of the survey suggest that younger people and people in more deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to such adverts

The results From Bristol

In the Bristol survey, which comprised 2,813 responses, for the week prior to completing the survey, 58% of respondents reported observing some kind of unhealthy advertising, of whom 40% reported seeing ads for junk food (aka high fat, salt and sugar, or HFSS), 17% for alcoholic drinks, 21% for establishments selling alcohol and 28% for gambling. 

Bar chart illustrates different types of harmful ads seen.

The most observed advertising for junk food products was for fast food, followed by sugary drinks and chocolate & sweets. The fast-food chain with the highest observed advertising was McDonald’s, followed by KFC , coffee chains, Dominos and Subway. 

pie charts illustrate proportion of ads seen for different junk food brands

The survey revealed deep social injustices in who is most exposed to harmful advertising. 

Younger respondents were more likely to observe advertising than older respondents, with this being particularly true for junk food ads. 

65% of people aged 18-34 saw junk food ads compared to just 31% of people aged 65+

Similarly, people living in more deprived areas (measured by income decile) reported seeing more ads than people in less deprived areas. Again, this was particularly true for junk food advertising. 

50% of people in the lowest income deciles saw jnk food ads compared to just 29% of people in the upper deciles.

We need action now

“Findings from Bristol corroborate previous evidence from other areas indicating that young people and people living in lower socio-economic areas are exposed to, or observe, more advertising of HFSS products.”

de Vocht et al

Outdoor advertising is a vector of social injustice, inequality and poor health outcomes. It is not, as the industry likes to suggest, a “neutral medium”. We need action now to stop the harm outdoor advertising does to our communities. 

Whilst the introduction of more ethical advertising policies by Bristol Council and other councils around the UK are welcome, they typically only cover a fraction of available advertising space (30 percent in Bristol’s case), meaning that harmful advertising still has a wide platform from which to spread its message.

Adfree Cities are calling on local authorities to:

  1. Introduce a moratorium on new ads, or at least a presumption against new ads being installed
  2. Adopt an ethical advertising policy for council-owned advertising sites, reducing the presence of harmful ads on our streets. 

What you can do:

  1. Join your local Adblock group (or start your own) to help monitor and block new planning applications for outdoor ads where you live and to install creative alternatives to corporate ads. 
  2. Take part in our Adspotters citizen science project. It only takes 2 minutes a day to help us map and understand the spread of outdoor ads in the UK.
  3. Follow us to stay up to date with our work, including upcoming research on the links between outdoors ads and social inequality.

You can find the full survey results here.

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