What are the links between outdoor advertising and obesity?

Over the last few months the Lords Select Committee on Food, Diet and Obesity have been meeting to consider the role of foods, such as ‘ultra-processed foods’, and foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), in driving the UK’s obesity epidemic.

The committee sessions have heard from a range of experts on the definitions of HFSS and ultra-processed foods (UPF), including public health professionals, nutritionists, academics, NGOs and ad industry insiders, and about the impact of these foods on maternal, children’s and adult health. And time and time again advertising has been brought up as a key factor impacting on what and how people eat, and as having an important role in keeping people healthy. 

What is the role of outdoor advertising?

The normalisation and ubiquity of these products – which are advertised everywhere, including along our streets and transport systems – make them seem harmless and even a good and necessary part of our diet.

The inequalities of where advertising is placed were also raised by multiple experts – as Adfree Cities found in our research into the increased placement of outdoor advertising in more deprived areas – people are more likely to see these ads in areas where there are already health inequalities. 

What does the ad industry think?

The ad industry have been trying to demonstrate their own public health credentials for a while showing that they know that there is an issue with how and what food is advertised. Outsmart have their Get Smart Outside campaign which aims to use the power of advertising to tackle obesity by creating healthier choices for children but also claims that ‘bans don’t work’. They claim that there is no evidence that banning outdoor advertising reduces childhood obesity – despite research into the ban on Transport for London finding that this has prevented 100,000 cases and is expected to save the NHS £200m.

Outdoor advertising works, otherwise why would companies such as Madonalds, Coca-Cola and KFC be amongst the top 10 companies spending on outdoor advertising.

Dr Chris van Tulleken also spoke about how limited restrictions will only encourage creativity in advertising as companies will use ‘alibi marketing’ to still promote brand and product recognition. 

What can councils do?

Changes in planning and the powers that local councils have to restrict advertising at a local level were also discussed. More and more councils are now including restrictions on HFSS products in their Advertising and Sponsorship Policies to acknowledge the impact that these have on public health. 

However, even though an increasing number of councils are bringing in ‘ethical’ advertising policies, this is still only possible on the advertising sites that they control which excludes all the sites on private property in the local area that are still able to show harmful ads. 

What should the government do?

There was a clear understanding that there is a need for national changes in food advertising and marketing.

The Committee is continuing to meet and hear from other experts, they have also called for written evidence from relevant groups and Adfree Cities have sent in a submission specifically on outdoor advertising. 

Hopefully the final report will identify the severe impact that advertising, and particularly outdoor advertising, has on vulnerable communities and the inequality of this in terms of health outcomes for the population. Ideally this should lead to changes in national legislation to ensure that corporate profits are not put before people’s lives and health. We will have to wait and see if sense will prevail.

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