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Staying healthy in a fast-changing world: exploring young people’s experiences of unhealthy food marketing

Posted on 03 May 2022 by Andy MacGregor, Director of Policy Research
Tags: COVID-19, Scottish Centre for Social Research, food marketing, health, healthy eating, obesity

Changes in young people’s media habits in recent years, alongside the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, have transformed the landscape for policymakers concerned with unhealthy food marketing.


Commissioned by Cancer Research UK, the Youth Obesity Policy Survey (YOPS) was first conducted in 2017, showing at the time that increased awareness of unhealthy food advertising was associated with obesity and consumption of high fat, salt and sugar foods.

In 2021, the Scottish Centre for Social Research (ScotCen) conducted online discussion groups with young people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to inform the next wave of YOPS. This research explored how high fat, salt and sugar marketing is influencing young people’s dietary choices today and assessed whether current policy is fit for purpose in the context of changing media habits and marketing techniques.

Lockdown acted as a barrier towards living a healthy lifestyle

In our online discussion groups, young people told us that COVID-19 lockdowns had a detrimental impact on young people’s health. This was mostly related to a perceived negative impact on young people’s mental health, and partly linked to other factors such as a reported increase in food consumption and a reduction in time spent on exercise. Alongside these detrimental impacts, changes in exposure to unhealthy food marketing during the pandemic were also noted. Young people said that unhealthy brands were more heavily marketed on social media during lockdown and, as they were on their phones and mobile devices more frequently, this resulted in increased exposure. However, there was a perceived decrease in exposure to out-of-home unhealthy food marketing due to restrictions related to the pandemic.

TikTok and food delivery apps were highlighted as new sources of unhealthy food marketing

For the first time, this research highlighted young people seeing unhealthy food and drink marketing via TikTok and food delivery apps, such as Just Eat and Uber Eats. They were able to give examples of both paid for and brand-owned advertising within TikTok, and other users on the platform posting about unhealthy dietary products.

For food delivery apps, young people spoke about pop-up adverts and promotions offering free delivery and increasing the accessibility of purchasing unhealthy food and drink products, which had an increased appeal due to lockdowns and restrictions on movement caused by the pandemic.

Young people demonstrated high brand awareness

We found that young people were knowledgeable of unhealthy food and drink brands. When shown snippets of 12 brand logos during the online groups, on average the young people recognised over 10 of the brands. Even if they were unable to name the brand specifically from the snippets alone, they tended to identify correctly that it was associated with unhealthy food products, such as ice cream. Young people were also able to cite examples in which they or their peers had been influenced by unhealthy food and drink marketing.

When we asked young people who took part in this research for their views, they were broadly supportive of measures to restrict the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products. Young people proposed changes which included reducing the attractiveness of unhealthy food products and having clearer product labelling. They also emphasised the importance of addressing the underlying problems, such as income inequality and access to healthier foods.

A fast-changing world - are policy changes needed?

The continued high level of awareness of unhealthy food advertising, together with the emergence of new marketing sources, reflects the rapidly changing nature of social media platforms and the need for regulations that can be future-proofed against such developments.

In our published report, Cancer Research UK have called on the government to task Ofcom to undertake an annual review monitoring the impact of different and emerging types of advertising and platforms on young people’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising and their dietary habits, to consider whether further interventions are needed. This recommendation is informed and supported by the findings of our research, particularly young people citing TikTok and fast food apps for the first time, and future research would be able to explore the impact of this measure.

ScotCen conducted qualitative research with young people aged 11-19 across the UK in April to June 2021, via 16 online group discussions, to inform the development of the third wave of the Youth Obesity Policy Survey (YOPS).

Read the full findings of this research and more information about YOPS.

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