A billboard advertising McDonald's burgers which has been painted with the message 'Eating Processed Meat Causes Cancer. We Don't Care. Give Us Your Money.'

Knowsley council takes action against junk food ads to protect children’s health

There was great news from Knowsley in Liverpool last week where the council became the first in the North West to restrict advertising for junk food (aka HFSS: High Fat, Salt and Sugar food), as reported by Sustain, who have been supporting the council to introduce these new measures.

It’s really positive to see that the council has recognised the role played by advertising in harming public health. They have taken this step because they know that restricting advertising for unhealthy food can help to protect the health of adults and children, which is a pressing concern in Knowsley where almost a third of Year 6 pupils live with obesity.

This is important because junk food advertising works (as demonstrated by this interesting social experiment by Bite Back). Adverts encourage us to consume more unhealthy foods, and have been linked to higher frequency of obesity in young people. So it’s not surprising that restricting junk food advertising works, too. Research found that a ban on junk food advertising across the Transport for London network led to almost 100,000 fewer obesity cases, and could save the NHS £200 million.

Unavoidable adverts

If we’re concerned about our health, and the health of our children, we may want to switch off adverts for products which will harm them – and we’ll likely be supportive of efforts to protect children from such adverts online and on TV. But sadly, we can’t switch off outdoor adverts. HFSS products are all around us on the billboards and bus stop adverts in our streets, and we cannot avoid being influenced by them.

Between 2022 and 2023, McDonald’s was by far the biggest spender on outdoor advertising in the UK, at over £80 million, with KFC and Coca Cola also among the top spenders. Adverts for HFSS food like these are more prevalent in more deprived areas, where concentrations of fast food outlets are also higher, compounding public health problems. Research in Bristol, which looked at the city’s advertising environment prior to the introduction of a similar policy to that which Knowsley has just introduced, found that: ‘Unhealthy product advertisements, particularly for unhealthy food and drinks, were observed more by younger people and those living in more deprived areas’.

Profiting from, and promoting, children’s poor health

No parent wants their child to be unhealthy, but we are surrounded by adverts for burgers and fried chicken every day, and adverts for HFSS foods are far more common than those for healthy foods. Corporations and advertisers who put these adverts in front of us are knowingly driving overconsumption of these unhealthy products, and they use sophisticated, manipulative techniques to persuade us to buy them.

Even if you take the view that we can ignore or choose not to look at adverts, or that we can somehow resist their influence, that still leaves us with the deeply immoral and unjust impact on some of the most influential and vulnerable members of our society – children. As we argue in our 2021 report At What Cost, such advertising violates children’s rights in multiple ways.

We should not tolerate brands pushing unhealthy food to children, or any of us, and it’s heartening to see that Knowsley has decided to send a strong message that they will not tolerate it. We hope this will inspire other councils to do the same. We have resources and advice for councils who are interested in adopting ethical advertising policies – do get in touch to find out more or see our resources for councils.

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