A Big (Mac) problem

Junk food advertising is big business. Between 2022 and 2023, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, KFC and Pepsi alone spent £168 million on outdoor advertising promoting junk food. Despite the health dangers posed by foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) being increasingly flagged by health professionals and policy makers, ads for burgers and milkshakes continue to dominate our streets.

Our work in this area has focused on lobbying local councils to introduce healthier advertising policies so that unhealthy foods cannot be advertised on council-owned advertising sites. Sustain have also done a lot of work with local councils to introduce these policies. They worked with Transport for London to adopt such a policy in 2019 and it is estimated that so far it has saved the NHS £200 million and prevented almost 100,000 cases of obesity.

More recently, experts from academia, civil society and even the ad industry have given evidence the House of Lords Committee on Food, Diet and Obesity on the role junk food advertising plays in driving demand. Adfree Cities’ work in this area was cited on several occasions. Read more about this here.

A billboard seen at the end of a row of houses. The board carries an ad for McDonalds.

Take action where you live

Junk food ads are all around us, often blending into the background of our lives. But we can take action to stop the harm they cause.

Local councils across the UK are taking action to limit junk food advertising on ad sites they own. Sheffield, Bristol, Luton, Haringey, Knowsley and Barnsley councils have all introduced such limits. Could yours be next?

a woman stands to speak in a council hall.

Use our resources to start lobbying your councillors

Find out more about how you can lobby your local council to introduce a healthier advertising policy.

Reducing exposure to unhealthy ads

Research from Adfree Cities has demonstrated how outdoor advertising is disproportionately placed in areas of towns and cities facing higher deprivation and lower incomes. In Leeds, for instance, 34% of outdoor ads are located in the most deprived decile of the city.

Since junk food advertisers are amongst the biggest spenders on outdoor advertising, more exposure to outdoor ads implies more exposure to junk food ads. And this is exactly what we find.

In 2023, a study from Bristol measured exposure to ads for unhealthy foods. 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. Similarly, people living in more deprived areas (measured by income decile) reported seeing more junk food ads than people in less deprived areas.

65% of people aged 18-34 saw junk food ads compared to just 31% of people aged 65+
Based on data from de Vocht et al (2023)
50% of people in the lowest income deciles saw jnk food ads compared to just 29% of people in the upper deciles.
Based on data from de Vocht et al (2023)

In his contribution to our Bad Publicity series of guest blogs, Dr Nason Maani highlights the scale of the problem. In 2022, Diageo (the company behind brands like Johnnie Walker, Guinness, and Smirnoff), spent over £2.7 billion on marketing. By contrast, the entire World Health Organisation has an annual global budget of around 2.6 billion pounds, of which health promotion campaigns comprise a small proportion.

The presence of ads for junk food and alcohol pollutes “the water we swim in”, the background influences that we encounter everyday, often without even realising, and that play a big part in shaping our lives and decisions.

A graphic shows a wave of alcoholic drinks falling on two doctors running away.

Check out this worrying film from Bite Back 2030 which demonstrates just how insidious advertising for junk food can be: