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 billboard-in-underground-hall-854270190_3000x2000This month, I was delighted to see the local authority I live in, Sefton Council, implement a Healthier Advertising Policy. This policy means only healthier foods and drinks (as defined by the Nutrient Profiling Model*) will be allowed to be advertised on council-owned advertising estates from now on (including billboards, bus shelters, lamppost advertising ribbons, for example). Less healthy adverts, for products like burgers, sugary drinks, chocolate and crisps, will now no longer be able to be advertised on these spaces.

This is a growing movement, starting in London through the Transport for London so-called ‘junk food ad ban’, and is now spreading across the country with support from the food and farming charity, Sustain. But why is this approach gaining such traction, and will it really help?

Outdoor advertising – why is it a concern?

It’s no coincidence the food and drink industry spend millions of pounds on advertising their products to the public. They invest large amounts of money in large marketing departments, including behavioural scientists, because it works. In the short term, it can raise sales by influencing consumer behaviour, and in the long term, can help to build brand identity, presence and preference. [1]

There is also strong evidence that advertising can have an impact on children and young people specifically, including an increased awareness and recall of a product or brand; [2] purchase of the product or brand or purchase requests from children; [3] consumption of advertised products; [4] and general food consumption [5].

But so, what? What if the food and drink that was being advertised was good for us – would that be such a problem if it encouraged us to eat more fruits and vegetables? Unfortunately, this is not the situation that we are currently facing.

The Food Foundation’s Broken Plate report in 2023 found that a third (33%) of food and soft drink advertising spend goes towards confectionery, snacks, desserts and soft drinks compared with just 1% for fruit and vegetables. [6]

In recent years, there has been greater scrutiny of less healthy food and drink advertising on TV and online platforms and legislation has been promised (albeit delayed – twice) to introduce a 9pm watershed on TV and similar restrictions online by October 2025. [7]

However, there are many other ways the food and drink industry can market their products beyond TV and online media, including outdoor advertising. Research in recent years has indicated that less healthy food and drink products were found on 15-35% of outdoor advertising spaces in various locations across the UK.[8-10].

Putting healthier food in the spotlight - approaches across England

Since February 2019, advertisements for less healthy food and drink* have been restricted across the Transport for London network of tubes, buses and trains. The move came following a period of consultation with the public and key stakeholders and was officially announced by the Mayor of London as part of his plans to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity across the capital. [11]

Since implementation, there have been several evaluations which suggest the policy has helped to make Londoners’ shopping baskets healthier; [12] could help to reduce the number of cases of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases; [13] and not have a negative impact on revenue from advertising. [14] The latter is particularly important given the amount of lobbying the food industry were involved in leading up to implementation of this policy, citing the significant impact on revenue this policy would have.

This approach has now been replicated by a number of local authorities with Sefton Council becoming the 13th local authority to bring in a Healthier Food Advertising Policy in April 2024 and the second local authority in the North West to do so after Knowsley successfully signed off on a policy earlier this year.

It is important to note that these policies do not cover all advertising estate locally. Many sites are privately owned by JCDecaux and Clear Channel, meaning the local authority cannot influence the types of adverts that are shown on these spaces. However, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and helps the council lead by example and send a clear message that adverts for less healthy food and drink should not be a normalised part of our streets and healthier foods should be in the spotlight instead.

What next?

I hope to see more and more councils take a similar approach to help take less healthy food and drink out of the spotlight in our local outdoor spaces. However, this policy is not a silver bullet and there needs to be a consistent approach across all forms of advertising to ensure children are not exposed to persuasive and engaging content promoting less healthy food and drink.

We need the government to finally implement the long-awaited 9pm watershed on TV and further restrictions online and start to consider how other forms of marketing, such as sports sponsorship and cartoon characters on food and drink packaging, can be addressed to finally take less healthy options out of the spotlight, for the sake of the future generation’s health.

* As defined by the Nutrient Profiling Model. The model uses a scoring system which balances the contribution made by beneficial nutrients that are particularly important in children’s diets with components in the food that children should eat less of.


Beth Molly Bradshaw, BSc, MSc, ANutr 
Food Active, Health Equalities Group

Beth is a Project Manager with healthy weight charity Food Active.
She has a passion for the wider determinants of health and campaigning for
an environment that is more conducive to healthy lifestyles and behaviours. 

Twitter: @BMBradshaw95
LinkedIn: @BethBradshaw1995
Email: [email protected]


[1] Vakratsas, D., & Ambler, T. (1999). How Advertising Works: What Do We Really Know? Journal of Marketing, 63(1), 26-43. https://doi.org/10.1177/002224299906300103

[2] Norman, J., Kelly, B., McMahon, A. T., Boyland, E., Chapman, K., & King, L. (2020). Remember Me? Exposure to Unfamiliar Food Brands in Television Advertising and Online Advergames Drives Children’s Brand Recognition, Attitudes, and Desire to Eat Foods: A Secondary Analysis from a Crossover Experimental-Control Study with Randomization at the Group Level. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120(1), 120-129

[3] Ng, S. H., Kelly, B., Se, C. H., Sahathevan, S., Chinna, K., Ismail, M. N., & Karupaiah, T. (2015). Reading the mind of children in response to food advertising: a cross-sectional study of Malaysian schoolchildren’s attitudes towards food and beverages advertising on television. BMC public health, 15(1), 1-14.

[4] Andreyeva, T., Kelly, I. R., & Harris, J. L. (2011). Exposure to food advertising on television: associations with children's fast food and soft drink consumption and obesity. Economics & Human Biology, 9(3), 221-233. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ehb.2011.02.004

[5] Boyland, E. J., Nolan, S., Kelly, B., Tudur-Smith, C., Jones, A., Halford, J. C., & Robinson, E. (2016). Advertising as a cue to consume: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of acute exposure to unhealthy food and nonalcoholic beverage advertising on intake in children and adults, 2. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 103(2), 519-533. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.120022

[6] Food Foundation (2023) The Broken Plate [online] Available at: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/publication/broken-plate-2023 [Accessed: 29th April 2024]

[7] Department for Health and Social Care (2020) Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tackling-obesity-government-strategy/tackling-obesity-empowering-adults-and-children-to-live-healthier-lives [Accessed: 29th April 2024]

[8] Adams, J., Ganiti, E., & White, M. (2011). Socio-economic differences in outdoor food advertising in a city in Northern England. Public Health Nutr, 14(6), 945-950.

[9] Olsen JR, Patterson C, Caryl FM et al. Exposure to unhealthy product advertising: Spatial proximity analysis to schools and socio-economic inequalities in daily exposure measured using Scottish Children’s individual-level GPS data. Health & Place. 2021 Mar 1;68:102535.

[10] Finlay A, Lloyd S, Lake A et al. An analysis of food and beverage advertising on bus shelters in a deprived area of Northern England 2021. doi:10.31234/osf.io/2ewy4

[11] Mayor of London (2018) Mayor confirms ban on junk food advertising on transport network [online] Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/ban-on-junk-food-advertising-on-transport-network-0 [Accessed: 29th April 2024]

[12] Yau A, Berger N, Law C, Cornelsen L, Greener R, et al. (2022) Changes in household food and drink purchases following restrictions on the advertisement of high fat, salt, and sugar products across the Transport for London network: A controlled interrupted time series analysis. PLOS Medicine 19(2): e1003915. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1003915

[13] Thomas, C., Breeze, P., Cummins, S. et al. The health, cost and equity impacts of restrictions on the advertisement of high fat, salt and sugar products across the transport for London network: a health economic modelling study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 19, 93 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-022-01331-y

[14] Sustain (2021) Transport for London declares junk food ad ban a success as revenues announced [online] Available at: https://www.sustainweb.org/news/jul21-tfl-advertising-restrictions-success/ [Accessed: 29th April 2024]

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