Adblock Bristol: creating space for what we really need to thrive

In March, Bristol City Council became the first council outside of London to introduce an end to advertising junk food. Nicola Round from volunteer group Adblock Bristol shares her vision for a city where public spaces are free from corporate advertising altogether.

If we want to make our city healthier and promote sustainable, ethical, locally produced food… we really need to do something about all the junk food adverts.

Everywhere we walk there’s an oversized bucket of fried chicken, an unfeasibly large burger or simply the ever-present Coca-Cola logo glaring down at us from billboards, phone boxes or bus shelters. We can’t avoid them. They benefit big corporations over local businesses, undermining support for locally produced, sustainable food, and for Bristol’s efforts to eat healthier. McDonalds, KFC, Tesco and Coca-Cola are all in the top 10 companies using outdoor advertising.

A community demonstration against a proposed digital advertising screen in Bristol, July 2020

In a world where we know how harmful junk food is, it seems like these ads should be a thing of the past. But as they walk to school, children are seeing many, many more adverts for unhealthy food than they are for healthy food, and ‘the higher the percentage of outdoor advertisements promoting food categorised as high in fat, salt and/or sugar, the greater the likelihood of obesity in the area’. What’s more, there seem to be more junk food adverts in poorer areas and areas where there are more overweight children. This may be because there are simply more adverts in these areas, so children from deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to unhealthy food and adverts. We suspect this is the case in Bristol, too.

Bristol Food Connections mural from 2018, installed after two billboards were removed (Upfest)

So that’s the bad news. But here’s the good. Sustain’s ‘Taking down junk food ads’ report in 2019 showed that much more can be done by local authorities to reduce junk food advertising and tackle the growing threat of diet-related diseases. Adblock Bristol has been working to prevent (and reduce) advertising sites in the city, as well as asking the council to take stronger action on advertising. Bristol has recently taken a step in the right direction. In March this year, Bristol City Council became the first council outside of London to introduce an end to advertising for junk food – known as food ‘high in fat, sugar or salt’ (HFSS) – on council-controlled sites, including all bus shelter adverts.

Adblock Bristol is working for a city where our public spaces are free from corporate advertising altogether. Restricting the most harmful advertising is a good place to start – and we’re asking Bristol City Council to extend their new advertising policy to restrict adverts for polluting cars, fossil fuel companies and airlines too. But we need to go further. The majority of billboards in Bristol are not council-controlled. They are run by big advertising companies who are still free to push adverts for junk food as well as cars, fast fashion, supermarkets and all the other big brands we see so often on large outdoor advertising spaces.

In a win for the youth-led Bite Back 2030 campaign this month, Boris Johnson has announced an end to online junk food adverts. Clearly policymakers know that young people are being harmed by all the junk food ads they see. So this is a good step, but children see junk food ads on billboards every day. Let’s get rid of them, too.

Artist Ava Osbiston installing a piece on Adblock Bristol community arts board in St Werburghs

Imagine if advertisers no longer had the right to use our public spaces to tell us to consume, consume, consume. Imagine if instead we made space for community growing projects, or art that celebrates local production and community organisations. We’re not saying no one should ever buy an unhealthy meal. But let’s stop making it even more difficult for people – of all ages – to make ethical, healthy decisions.

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By setting the wheels in motion now, together we can transform the future of food in our city, building in resilience over the next decade. So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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