By Dr Emma Boyland, Senior Lecturer, University of Liverpool
That the intention of advertising is to influence an audience shouldn’t need saying. Basic market rules dictate that if advertising wasn’t effective in influencing us, then it wouldn’t exist.
As an academic psychologist, I’ve spent my career researching the impact of food advertising on children’s food preferences and intake. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that exposure to unhealthy food advertising has a negative impact on children’s diets. This is why I am fully behind Government plans to restrict unhealthy food adverts on TV and online, announced as part of a strategy to reduce obesity in adults and children.
The Government’s analysis of the impact of banning junk food adverts on TV before 9pm indicates that the health benefits associated with reductions in obesity-related ill health over children’s lifetimes will be worth around £1.9 billion, which makes this policy the right thing to do from a financial perspective, as well as the moral one.
But what will the impact be on adults? Effective restrictions on junk food advertising would clearly mean they see less – particularly as so many prime-time TV shows are popular with both adults and children. An analysis by Kantar of the scale of unhealthy food advertising on TV found that over 72 billion impacts for products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) were seen by adults in one year (an impact is one advert seen by one person). Unhealthy food adverts accounted for nearly half (46%) of all food and drink adverts seen by adults.
UK dietary guidance certainly doesn’t recommend that half an adult’s diet is comprised of foods high in fat, sugar and salt and National Diet and Nutrition Survey data show we are eating more free sugar and saturated fat than recommended.
Kantar’s analysis concluded that a 9pm watershed would cut adults’ exposure to HFSS advertising by 60%. But the key question is – would seeing fewer adverts for these types of products help adults?
Last year, the Obesity Health Alliance commissioned me to review the evidence on the impact of food advertising to adults (the full report is here). Although limited, especially relative to the scale of data on the impact of advertising to children, recent evidence from well-controlled studies shows that exposure to food advertising does influence adults in terms of their desire to eat and also what and how much they eat.
We can also learn from studies exploring how other types of advertising for unhealthy products influences adults’ behaviour. There is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that alcohol marketing is associated with greater, and more risky, alcohol consumption in UK adults. It is likely that we can apply similar conclusions to the impact of unhealthy food advertising on adults.
Given that over a quarter of adults in England are living with obesity, and excess weight is associated with a number of diseases including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, liver disease along with mental health conditions, a reduction in adult obesity and subsequent health benefits would reap significant savings to the NHS.
Ahead of the new restrictions coming into force in 2022, the food and media industry will be making a persuasive case that further restrictions will represent a cost burden to their businesses. While this does need to be considered, it is vital that the full benefits of less junk food advertising exposure for everyone is taken into account. It’s often said that you can’t put a price on good health – but this is one situation where, for the good of the health of the nation and the NHS, we need to.