Qualitative scoping work to inform the development of the third wave of the Youth Obesity Policy Survey

This study is the third in a series of repeat qualitative studies with 11-19-year olds across the UK conducted by ScotCen.
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  • Authors:
    Andy MacGregor
    Jessica Shields
    Claire Elliott
  • Publishing date:
    3 March 2022

This study is the third in a series of repeat qualitative studies with 11-19-year olds across the UK conducted by ScotCen, previously conducted in 2016 and 2019, to inform the development of the Youth Obesity Policy Survey (YOPS).

About the study

The primary aim of the research was to explore the influence of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) marketing on children and young people’s perceptions and dietary choices, and whether the changing policy context is fit for purpose in the context of changing media habits and marketing techniques, or whether further changes may be needed in the future.


Recall of high fat, salt and sugar marketing remains high, with TikTok and food delivery apps highlighted as new sources of high fat, salt and sugar advertising

Where young people recalled seeing HFSS marketing was similar to in 2019, with social media being highly prevalent. However, with fieldwork being conducted at times of COVID-related lockdown or restrictions, TikTok and food delivery apps (e.g. Just Eat and Uber Eats) were mentioned for the first time. Examples of both paid for (e.g. brand advertising) and non-paid for (e.g. other users posting about HFSS products) advertising were reported for TikTok, and with food delivery apps young people described pop-up adverts and promotions offering free delivery. The emergence of these new sources of advertising highlights the fast-changing nature of social media platforms and HFSS marketing strategies, and the need for regulations which can be future proofed against such developments.

Young people have high recognition of high fat, salt and sugar brands

Young people in all of the focus groups demonstrated extremely high brand recall, identifying the company names of over 10 out of 12 logo snippets they were shown. Even when they couldn’t name the brand, young people could still identify that they were associated with HFSS products.

Lockdown had varied effects on young people’s exposure to high fat, salt and sugar advertising and high fat, salt and sugar consumption

Differing opinions were expressed by young people on how lockdowns due to Covid-19 had impacted their HFSS advertising exposure. It was felt that brands were more heavily marketed on social media during lockdown, and some young people said being on their phones and devices more meant they saw more advertising. Others reported less HFSS advertising exposure, particularly of out of home advertising due to going outside less regularly. Young people from the oldest age groups, with more independence over their purchasing and meal choices, reported increased HFSS consumption due to boredom and staying at home, whereas younger age groups believed that they had reduced control over their purchasing choices.

Other marketing tactics such as ‘health washing’ and packaging design also target and influence young people

‘Health washing’ refers to brands who position themselves and their products as promoting healthy whilst actually engaging in practices which may be contributing towards poor health. When shown health washing examples, young people were able to recognise that this marketing was different from HFSS advertising, and perceived these products as healthier based on both nutritional cues (e.g. words such as free range, natural, protein, fruit, fibre) and non-nutritional cues (such as showing ''healthy looking'' people in the adverts). Young people, particularly the older age groups, were critical of the accuracy of the health claims made by mainstream HFSS brands, suggesting companies may be inaccurately trying to make the products look healthy when they are not.

Young people gave tangible examples of marketing influencing their food choices, particularly among the youngest ages

In 2019, despite strongly expressing the opinion that advertising did not have an impact on them, young people still gave examples of HFSS influencing their food choices. This was seen again in this wave; young people gave tangible examples of HFSS marketing influencing their own purchasing or what they asked their parents to purchase, particularly in the younger age groups.


ScotCen conducted 16 online focus groups between April and June 2021. Four groups were conducted in each of the four nations of the UK with a spread of ages across the age group of interest (11-19). In total, 96 young people took part in the groups, with 54 female and 42 male participants contributing to the discussions.