Four in five billboard ads in England and Wales in poorer areas

<span>Children are more likely to request unhealthy foods if they’ve seen them advertised.</span><span>Photograph: Maica/Getty Images</span>
Children are more likely to request unhealthy foods if they’ve seen them advertised.Photograph: Maica/Getty Images

More than four in five outdoor billboard advertisements are in the poorest half of England and Wales, leading experts to warn that the discrepancy risks deepening health inequalities.

While billboards may be seen by many simply as eyesores, campaigners argue they negatively affect people’s lives in intersecting ways, by pushing unhealthy products such as fast food and alcohol, encouraging environmentally harmful consumption and lowering mental wellbeing.

Adfree Cities, a group that campaigns against the expansion of advertising, has for the first time analysed the relationship between advertising and income and deprivation in England and Wales.

Its research shows areas with the lowest levels of disposable income were home to 62,953 outdoor ads (82%), compared with just 13,384 in the more affluent half.

While it did not measure whether more unhealthy products are advertised in more deprived areas nationally, industry data lists three fast-food chains among the top five spenders on UK outdoor advertising in 2023.


Prof Emma Boyland, the chair of food marketing and child health at the University of Liverpool, said advertising risked worsening health disparities including obesity, with children appearing particularly vulnerable to marketing.

“It affects our choices,” she said. “We know in deprived areas, there are a clustering of reasons why it may be more challenging to maintain body weight, including a lack of facilities, lack of time, stress, density of fast-food outlets.”

Boyland, who wrote the report’s preface, said existing studies suggested poorer neighbourhoods were home to not just more outdoor advertising but also more ads for unhealthier products. “There is evidence that ads for unhealthy food are more clustered in areas that are more deprived,” she said, pointing to a recent study in Liverpool.

Studies show that among young people, the likelihood of being obese is more than twice as high in those who report seeing junk food advertising daily, and Boyland said type 2 diabetes and obesity were rising among children, with those in deprived areas most affected.

Boyland called for concerted policy change to mitigate these health risks. “We need to think about how to reduce inequality. The research shows the clustering effect, where it’s not just one single factor – people are being hit by all angles. They say it’s damaging to the economy to regulate advertising but the costs we’re spending to deal with obesity are massive.”

The report focuses on Sheffield and Leeds and found ad density was higher in the parts of the cities with the least disposable income.


In Sheffield, 60% of ads were in the city’s poorest three deciles, and just 2% were in its most affluent third. The picture in Leeds was less stark, with 37% of ads in its lowest-income third and 20% in its most affluent three deciles.

Peter Brooks, a researcher, said poorer areas may have more advertising due to lower land value and being closer to main roads. Another reason may be related to planning permission, with ads in wealthier areas potentially more likely to be opposed.


Some residents are joining local efforts to push back against a rise in advertising in their city. Rajan Naidu lives near Birmingham Ladywood, the constituency with the second highest number of outdoor ads and one of England’s most deprived.

“It gives you a sense of helplessness, same as when we see an area covered in litter,” Naidu said. “If someone asked ‘would you like an ad hoarding outside your house?’ most people would say ‘no way’. But there’s a sense of powerlessness [when] they do this to our environment.”

While residents are given the chance to oppose a planning application, Naidu said local authorities needed to design their systems to accommodate people more widely. “We are technically consulted but no real efforts are made to seek us out … Not everyone reads a letter and will respond.”

In more affluent areas, Naidu believes it is more likely “there will be someone in the local community who knows the official pathways to do something about it”. He said: “Once these installations are in our streets, there’s very little we can do about it.”

Tim Lumb, the director of the out of home advertising trade body Outsmart, said the industry provided an important revenue stream for local authorities. “With one in five councils at risk of bankruptcy, urban deprivation is a serious issue. Out of home advertising is an important revenue stream for cash-strapped councils, funding public infrastructure like bus shelters, telephony, defibrillators, as well as helping the public purse through rents, revenue-share agreements, and business rates.”

He said a PwC report found that £411m of outdoor advertising revenue “made its way back into the economy in 2021, with £1.1bn invested into designing, installing and maintaining public infrastructure over the last 14 years”.