Image shows an artwork on a billboard with superimposed text reading "Our space not ad space. For happier healthier cities"

Adfree Cities launches new research on ads and inequality

New research from Adfree Cities reveals that billboards are disproportionately placed in poorer communities with higher levels of deprivation. The first-of-its-kind research, by campaign group Adfree Cities, overlays the location of advertising billboards with government Indices of Multiple Deprivation and income data.

You can read the full report, or a shorter summary, here.

Take action

Our research – covered in The Guardian – reveals huge gaps in outdated UK planning legislation and calls for reform, so that the health and economic impacts of advertising are considered in planning decisions, beyond road safety and visual beauty.

We need you to write to your MP asking them to read the report and to pressure the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to make the changes we desperately need to address this inequality.

Video: Matt O’Brien (@hark_films)

How outdoor ads cause harm

Outdoor advertising such as billboards, bus shelter ads and digital ad screens often promotes unhealthy commodities. This new report – titled Unavoidable Impact – corroborates findings in Bristol, where younger people and those living in more deprived areas were more likely to report seeing adverts, and specifically saw more ads for unhealthy food, alcohol, gambling and payday loans than people living in areas with higher socio-economic advantage.

Fast food companies are among the UK’s top spenders on outdoor advertising, with McDonald’s spending more than £81 million in 2022-2023. A flagship ban on advertisements for unhealthy food and drink across the Transport for London network has prevented almost 100,000 obesity cases and is expected to save the NHS £200 million, with the biggest positive health impacts in more deprived areas.

The direct health impacts of outdoor advertising remain under-researched. However, testimonials from Bristol residents living near large digital billboards show the impacts of such screens, with residents citing issues including light sensitivity, impacts on sleep and quality of life, and distraction while using busy roads. A petition calling for two Bristol ad screens to be removed garnered more than 1700 signatures.

Image shows two billboards. One has an ad for Mcdonald's, the other an ad for Sprite.

The need for reform

Outdoor advertising is governed by the Town and Country Planning Act and the regulations were last updated in 2007. Since then we’ve seen an explosion in digital ad screens, capable of showing multiple ads per minute and equipped with data gathering equipment to read the search history and location data of passers-by – none of this is covered by the existing regulations.

To put that in context, 2007 saw the release of the first iPhone. Imagine if we still regulated digital communications with laws written when “mobile phone” meant Nokia 3210.

We are calling for two major updates to the regulations. Firstly, we want to see an expansion in the available reasons councils have to refuse planning permission to new advertisement. At present there are only two: road safety and amenity, which is a subjective measure of how attractive an area is an explains a lot about why so many ads get built in already under-invested parts of towns and cities.

Secondly, we want to rebalance the scales so that local communities have greater say in the planning process and advertising companies face more hurdles in obtaining planning permission. Ad companies have the time, money and resources to make endless applications and to do so until they get their way. The planning process should reflect this and give local people greater opportunity to object should they wish.

Alternatives to advertising

Removing outdoor advertising from our public spaces frees up space for other things like art, nature and spaces for relaxation and recreation. Adblock Bristol’s Burg Art Board is a great example of a community space repurposed from a billboard.

Most importantly, it frees public space from incessant corporate messages to consume. Such messaging – which is everywhere in adverts, even if implicitly – not only affects how we behave but it also affects our sense of self. Exposure to advertising has been shown to make us more materialistic and to measure our self-worth through the things we own rather than the things we do or the connections we make with others.

A bus stop containing a poster that reads "plant art not ads"

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