In almost every modern city, it’s virtually impossible to move without running into a massive poster of something delicious, deep fried and terrible for you. From Times Square to Piccadilly Circus, we’re surrounded by towering monolithic McDonald’s pictures and giant fillets of KFC that look as though they were hacked from a dinosaur leg.
For years, the industry’s incessant advertising has just been part and parcel of living around other people. Though we’ve all known for ages that McNuggets and Whoppers are about as essential to a well-rounded diet as a spoonful of lard, we’ve taken it for granted that these businesses have just as much right to try and tempt us as anyone else. However, a new development in London suggests that times may be about to change.
Aside from dealing with the aftershocks of Britain’s Brexit policy, London currently finds itself in the grip of a much more insidious problem. According to the Mayor’s Office, the city currently “has one of the highest child obesity rates in Europe,” a situation that disproportionately impacts on the poorest in society. A study from late 2018 found that “Londoners currently face stark disparities in health depending on their incomes and where they live,” and that, “obesity in children in reception classes living in the most deprived areas is more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas.” With the situation approaching crisis point, the city has decided to act.
As of 25 February, the Mayor’s Office has announced plans to ban fast food advertising across the entire Transport for London network, including taxis, roundabouts and bus shelters and the London Underground. According to the city’s official announcement, the ban will not just affect “advertisements that directly feature food and/or non-alcoholic drink considered to be high in fat, sugar and salt,” but will also include “a requirement for food and drink brands, restaurants, takeaways and ordering services to promote their healthier food and drink instead of just advertising their brand”. Companies will only be able to apply for an exemption “if the advertiser can demonstrate, with appropriate evidence, that the product does not contribute to child obesity.”
The blunt nature of mayor Sadiq Khan’s approach indicates just how serious many believe the situation has become. The city has cited Cancer Research UK studies from 2018, which found that “young people who recalled seeing junk food adverts every day were more than twice as likely to be obese”. The Mayor’s Office pointed out that, “with 30 million journeys made every day on TfL’s network, its advertising sites offer a key opportunity to promote good food and a healthy lifestyle to both children and their family members or carers.” The hope is that the new ban can mark the first step on the road to lasting change.
The mayor is not the only one trying to change Londoner’s eating habits. His staff have also teamed up with celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, as well as healthy eating initiatives like “Veg Power” to try and effect change. Recent polling suggests that around 82 per cent of Londoners are themselves in favour of a fast food ban, while several prominent public health experts have also lent their support.
However, despite what would seem on the surface to be a largely progressive attitude towards fast food promotion, the new policy is not without its detractors. Several advertising experts have voiced concerns over the blanket approach of the ban, claiming that the severity of the terms could end up accidentally affecting innocent businesses. According to Eater, the Advertising Association have also claimed that the ban will have “little impact on the wider societal issues that drive obesity,” and suggested that “TfL will struggle to find advertisers, meaning the loss of revenue will impact commuter fares.”
And then there are the fast food companies themselves. Conservative estimates suggest that the industry currently spends around $11bn per year on advertising, meaning that the sudden closure of one of their major markets is bound to affect strategy. Though no companies have come out directly to criticise the proposals, it seems unlikely that they aren’t privately troubled by what they have seen.
Though the Mayor’s Office has said that any current fast food advertising contracts will be honoured, it looks as though this new proposal could spell the beginning of the end for the dominance of fast food advertising. While it remains to be seen whether London’s approach is just a flash in the pan or a sign of something greater, it certainly marks a radical step towards the city taking more control in what its citizens consume. There will doubtless be a wide range of opinions on whether this is a good thing. But, in Britain’s capital at least, the era of mouthwatering burgers and Photoshopped pizzas is finally drawing to a close.