Guest blog by Amy Finlay, PhD student at the University of Liverpool


At this time of year, it’s hard to escape food marketing. Everywhere we turn there are TV adverts, social media posts and bus shelter posters promoting a wide variety of mouth-watering, festive food products.

Food advertising on television and digital media influences what we buy and eat, which in turn affects our body weight and risk of obesity[1]. Evidence shows it has these effects in children as well as adults[2]. People are continuously exposed to food marketing across a range of platforms, which often contains powerful promotional techniques to make the products even more appealing, such as mouth-watering images of food, promotions, taste and health appeals, and the use of characters or celebrities that resonate with specific consumers[3].

In an attempt to reduce the negative impacts of food marketing on health, new restrictions in the UK will limit how unhealthy foods can be marketed online and on TV. These are to be implemented by the end of 2022[4] with the goal of reducing the junk food advertising seen by children and young people, who are more easily persuaded by such campaigns[5]. However, food marketing outdoors, in places where children gather ­- on their routes to and from school, on billboards, posters, buses and bus shelters – remains largely unchallenged. The volume of advertising found outdoors is high, making this a major loophole in the proposed restrictions and, as well as junk food, other harmful commodities and behaviours such as alcohol and gambling advertising are commonplace[6]. Therefore, even with the new rules for TV and digital media, children and young people will still be unable to escape unhealthy marketing, which will weaken the potential public health impact of the new restrictions.

Research on outdoor marketing and branding

UK studies have confirmed the pervasiveness of outdoor food marketing. For example, one study conducted in Newcastle upon Tyne found that 15% of all ads were for food, more than a third of which were less healthy[7], while a study conducted in Scotland found that 15.3% of all ads were for fast food products. There was no consistent relationship between deprivation and advertisement location in either study, although it has been proposed that children living in more deprived areas are more likely to travel through urban settings, so have more contact with the transport network and therefore may encounter more adverts[8].

We recently conducted an analysis of bus shelter advertising in South Teesside[9], specifically Middlesbrough, and Redcar and Cleveland. Middlesbrough is the most deprived area of England, and Redcar and Cleveland is the 29th most deprived area out of 343 in England. This study found that almost half of all adverts identified on bus shelters were for food or drinks. Of those food and non-alcoholic drinks, more than one in three (35.1%) were classed as ‘less healthy’ by the UK Nutrient Profiling Model[10] which categorises foods based on their nutritional content. There were no clear patterns in the food advertising by the level of deprivation of the area, but this is likely to be because all areas were relatively deprived.

A large proportion of the advertisements were promoting fast food brands, however, not all of these products were classed as less healthy. McDonalds’ coffee and fries were both frequently advertised, yet neither are classed as less healthy by the Nutrient Profiling Model. However, these adverts did prominently feature company branding (such as a brand name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of these[11]). Evidence shows that branding has a powerful effect on food preference. For example, in one study where participants took part in a blind taste test, about 50% reported a preference for Coca-Cola over competitor Pepsi, however when the Coca-Cola drink was labelled, participants frequently preferred this to an unlabelled beverage which they were told could be Coca-Cola or Pepsi[12]. Another study showed that children preferred the taste of food when it was in McDonalds packaging versus plain packaging[13]. Further research is required to confirm the impact of brand advertising on purchase and consumption, for example, if an individual sees an advert for McDonalds’ coffee, will this prompt them to visit McDonalds and buy something that is less healthy, such as a burger?

One study found that when healthy products (e.g. apple slices and milk) were shown in fast food adverts, children were often confused and failed to recognise the foods for what they were[14]. Another study found that after seeing fast food adverts with healthy products, children still chose unhealthy options when given a hypothetical menu, and their ratings for liking fast food increased[15]. This indicates that exposure to less healthy brands alone is enough to prompt unhealthy behaviours, irrespective of the product advertised. These forms of advertising must be better understood, as current restrictions to junk food marketing, such as those implemented across Transport for London (TfL), allow fast food brands to promote these healthier products in their portfolio. Similarly, the proposed restrictions on TV and digital media will permit brand advertising, so typically unhealthy brands can still advertise if no HFSS products are present. There is evidence that when presented with a food brand or logo, brain activity is shown in areas related to motivation in children[16] and reward in adults[17]. More research is needed in real-life settings to see if this exposure leads to individuals taking action through purchasing less healthy food from the brand.

Outdoor marketing regulations

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which regulates marketing in the UK, states that advertising of HFSS products should not be present where more than a quarter of the audience is aged under 16 years[18]. Outdoor marketing companies have taken this to mean within 100 metres of a school while some food brands, such as McDonalds, have devised their own restrictions and claim that they will not advertise within 200 metres of a school[19]. The ASA regulations, however, do not consider other places where large numbers of children are frequently gathered (e.g. nurseries, parks, town centres), or places with a generally heavy footfall where adverts will be encountered by thousands of children per day, because children are not thought to comprise a quarter of the audience. In addition, there is no penalty for food brands if they break this advertising rule. A report by Food Active and Sustain[20] documents examples of advertisements that go against the guidance, for example chocolate bars and fast-food burger meals promoted within 100m of primary schools, and details the resultant outcomes (which are often inconsequential for the food industry).

It is unclear why it is deemed inappropriate for children to be exposed to harmful advertising at home whilst this is acceptable in their day-to-day environment. Furthermore, the extent of less-healthy food marketing outdoors will likely increase as the new restrictions come into place in 2022, as brands move their advertising spend to a format where they can still reach children and young people[21].

Advertising on transport networks, which makes up a large proportion of marketing encountered outdoors, is under the control of local authorities[22], and it is here where changes have already started taking place. Following the junk food ban across TfL, rather than a loss of income, as perhaps anticipated, revenue rose by £2.3 million in the first year[23]. Similar restrictions deployed in different local areas are needed to help minimise displacement of unhealthy marketing to outdoor settings, and there are suggestions of other local authorities already following suit[24].

The future for outdoor marketing

It has been suggested that the success of outdoor marketing can be attributed to the fact it is seen by shoppers when they are already in the mood to buy[25]. Despite this, little research has been conducted to measure the impacts of outdoor food marketing, although there are numerous studies of this type on TV and digital marketing. Current evidence shows associations between outdoor food marketing exposure and consumption of specific products[26],[27], and the likelihood of obesity,27 however evidence of a direct relationship showing outdoor advertising exposure leading to changes in behaviour is required to support policy progress in this space.

In order to further influence outdoor marketing regulations, more conclusive and consistent impact research is required. While protocols have been developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) to support monitoring of food advertising on TV and online[28], standardised methods for monitoring outdoor marketing are less well developed. Addressing this would facilitate more of this kind of research and data collected in such a way as to be comparable across time and location.

Given the majority of marketing outdoors remains unregulated, children will continue to be exposed to less healthy products in a setting where, if they have the disposable income, they will be able to act on immediately. The brand exposure will also raise awareness, influence lifelong preferences and purchasing habits and normalise consumption of less healthy foods. It is of concern that individuals from more deprived backgrounds may be less able to escape this, making outdoor advertising yet another factor continuing to contribute to widening health inequalities in the UK. In the Healthy Weight Strategy, the Obesity Health Alliance include a recommendation to extend advertising restrictions by removing outdoor advertising for unhealthy food and drinks, showing that NGO’s and the public health community would support the changes necessary in addressing this current loophole.


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