Time to turn the tide on fast food ads

Advertising and PR agencies are pledging not to work with fossil fuel companies, or gambling and tobacco brands. They should banish their unhealthy food clients too, says Ali Morpeth.

The school summer holidays are a massive juggle. I'm a full-time working mum and my job as a public health nutritionist working on advocacy and policy across NGOs and industry is busy. I have three children at home for seven weeks and feeding them three meals a day is exhausting (hats off (and thanks) to the caterers who do it for most of the year). 

It's mid-August – about halfway through the school break – and I'm trawling BBC Food looking for something for dinner. I've been on Zoom all day trying to navigate the dual public health-climate crisis so my brain should be full of healthy, sustainable meal ideas; instead it’s fried. The kids are in from holiday club and are biting at my heels for dinner.

Thank goodness for BBC Food’s pea risotto though. The middle one will probably reject it but the eldest will be ok (peas first, then rice) and the youngest will go for it if I add broccoli (I know!). Two out of three kids eating dinner with vegetables is a win.

But the online recipe starts flashing and here comes KFC’s full page advert nudging me to order a family bucket of deep fried chicken rather than cook the risotto. “ORDER HERE” it shouts, front and centre on the page. 

It's tempting. All the kids will eat chicken and chips. It's fast, and no effort (before or during the meal). 

The scenario made me stop and think: that the junk food environment is so pervasive it's permeating every element of the food system – even home cooking platforms like BBC Food that parents rely on for healthy, easy recipes. 

For KFC’s marketing team this is genius targeting, of course, as it would be for the other fast food brands who use the BBC Food platform to reach a wide and engaged audience. It has my data; it knows I'm a busy working mum, that I've three kids and it's the summer holidays. It probably knows how many sandwiches I’ve been making for them of late and is offering me a proposition that makes feeding my family easy – at the push of a button. 

KFC will grow its bottom line by targeting working parents through the summer holidays, nudging us to switch from home cooked food to family buckets of industrially produced chicken.  KFC’s marketers have made their call to action – 'ORDER NOW' – impossible to miss and timed to perfection. The chain is capturing new segments of the market. Commercially-speaking it is extremely clever. 

But the success of this marketing strategy is a public health disaster. 

It's another example of people being sucked into the feedback loops of what Henry Dimbleby refers to as the “junk food cycle”.  We want to believe we have control over our own appetites and behaviours; and to some extent, we do. But our behaviours are directed by marketing – and most of the food being marketed to us is detrimental to our health – only 1% ad spend is on fruit and veg, for example. Even when we are actively looking for healthy options – like my pea risotto – we are encouraged to change tack. For people with limited time and money, breaking free from this trap is an even greater challenge. The odds are stacked against us.

And what we eat is the biggest risk factor for preventable disease, causing debilitating illness and in turn pressure on the NHS. Some 30% of the people in the UK are living with obesity. Nearly 60% of all new diabetes cases (and 70% of diabetes expenditure) are due to weight, as well as 18% of cardiovascular disease, 11% of dementia and 8% of cancers. Current NHS spend on treating obesity-related ill health is £6.5bn a year; if everyone were a healthy weight the NHS could potentially save £14bn, according to research reported by The Guardian in May. 

The irony of this is that diet-related illness, and costs to the NHS, are preventable. We can act by putting guardrails around ad spend on foods: just 3% of volume promotions or multibuys available in supermarkets are on staple carbohydrates, while 3.8% are on fruit and vegetables; this is compared to 33% that are on unhealthy food, according to The Food Foundation. KFC chicken buckets on platforms that exist to encourage family meals and food culture don't have to take prominence.  

As my public health ally Fran Bernhardt, children’s food campaign coordinator at Sustain, tells me: “In 2020, the Government promised to restrict unhealthy food adverts online. But unfortunately, it gave in to pressure from industry so three years later there’s still nothing stopping companies like KFC from putting their unhealthy products centre-stage. And that’s concerning because quite simply, advertising works.” 

And that’s why companies spend millions advertising to us. “When we see these adverts,” Bernhardt explains, “we are more likely to buy and eat these foods instead of healthier foods. In fact, a CRUK study found that every additional unhealthy food advert a child saw led to them consuming an extra 350 calories per week, so that quickly puts us at higher risk of obesity. We need our government to prioritise our health and our children’s health and take these unhealthy foods out of the spotlight.”

So how can we change online food marketing? There are four areas to focus on.

First, we are in the midst of a public health crisis driven by diet-related illness and the government still refuses to implement the online regulations that it committed to in its 2020 obesity strategy. My first call to action is this: the government must implement the regulations it committed to in 2020, including online marketing restrictions. 

Second, in the national food strategy, a raft of policy solutions were proposed to fix the food system, including fiscal levers like introducing a sugar and salt reformulation tax. A reformulation tax would stimulate manufacturers to reformulate their products – as we have seen with the soft drinks industry levy on sugar – so products marketed online would, post reformulation, be less bad for us. We need fiscal levers on high sugar and salt foods. 

But in the absence of any government intervention we need businesses to take a leadership role. There's a general election around the corner, and low appetite in Westminster to do anything on food, but companies can set their own policies. So, my third action point is for brands representing food culture, like BBC Food, to step up and create company-wide advertising policies that restrict junk food brands from advertising on their platforms. Allowing these companies to advertise on their platforms dilutes their brands – what is the purpose of a menu planning and home cooking website if you're relocating your users to fast food giants? 

And then finally we come to those marketing and advertising executives and agencies which can often be the the unforgotten cog in the junk food cycle. They are experts at campaign development, ad strategies, advertising spend, media buying and customer profiling. In April, more than 500 agencies signed a pledge not to work with fossil fuel polluters; many agencies also refuse to work with tobacco and gambling brands. The industry can take the same approach to junk food, which is perpetuating the biggest health crisis of our time. They can pick better clients, refusing to work with companies including fast food brands. They could even generate their own PR by doing the right thing. 

If you are interested, I did make the pea risotto in the end. But I’ve been speaking about the need for long-term action to improve the food environment through marketing restrictions for years, and the messages still stand: the public health crisis is urgent and we are not going to bend the curve on obesity without bold intervention from government and the businesses who ride off the back of junk food promotions. 

Ali Morpeth is a registered public health nutritionist (RNutr) working at the intersection of NGO and business to change the food system. 

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