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It seems obvious that advertising unhealthy food and drink leads to people eating and drinking more of it. UK businesses wouldn’t have spent an estimated £21 billion on ads in 2016 if they didn’t work.

But it’s difficult to know exactly who TV advertising is working on, and whether it’s leading those people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t.

We are particularly worried about children and young people – a prime target for advertisers. They have pocket money, find fun ads appealing, and will pester their parents to buy what they’ve seen.

And if what they’ve seen is junk food, that could be a massive problem. What we eat and weigh in childhood can define these things in adulthood. And with 13 types of cancer linked to obesity in adults, this could have a big impact on health.

Ofcom, the TV regulator, agrees. 10 years ago, it restricted TV advertising for products high in fat, salt or sugar on children’s programming.

But TV viewing habits change.

We’re worried that young people mostly watch family entertainment – not children’s TV. And newer ‘on-demand’ online channels can also carry ads. In both these cases, the TV ad ban often doesn’t apply. So it may no longer be protecting young people.

Our new report, by the Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention, considers whether new marketing regulations are needed 10 years on. Here’s what we found.

Do children watch TV?

Our team surveyed 3348 11-19 year olds to see how marketing affected them. The people surveyed were representative of the UK, meaning we can start to make conclusions from these data and apply them to habits more broadly.

Firstly, we found that young people watched about 20 hours of TV that has adverts each week on average. And 11 hours of this came from streaming services.

For obese children, this was higher.

They averaged 26 hours of TV carrying ads each week, with 15 hours of this coming from streaming.

Studies have shown that 2 junk food ads appear on TV every hour (but up to 9 times every hour at peak viewing times). So 20-25 hours of exposure to ads could translate to young people seeing lots of junk food ads each week.

Are children seeing junk food adverts?

Regulators know junk food ads can be a problem. They just assume children only really watch children’s TV, and only regulate that kind of programming. So, in terms of exposure to unhealthy food marketing, watching lots of TV is only worrying if the programmes kids are watching carry lots of junk food ads.

We needed to know where junk food ads might be slipping through the regulation net and reaching large audiences of young people. To find out, we asked on what TV genres – if any at all – young people felt they saw the most junk food adverts.

This relies on people remembering where they saw these sorts of adverts, so it can’t provide a precise answer on how likely young people are to see junk food marketing. But if they can remember these ads as part of this survey, they may also remember them when they are go to the fridge, to lunch or to the shops. And it’s that impact of junk food ads we’re most worried about.

They said ‘family programmes’ shown on evenings and weekends – such as the X Factor, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and Football – were where they most often remembered seeing ads. This probably represents their viewing habits – these are the shows children watch most. And together, this suggests that the shows young people watch the most do carry junk food adverts, and that young people remember seeing them.

Do junk food ads increase the risk of unhealthy eating?

It seems that TV advert rules might not be protecting kids from seeing junk food ads. But one critical question still needs to be answered. Does the number of ads someone sees affect their diet?

We ran a test to find out. It looked for a link between the number of ads our surveyed kids said they saw and the type of food they remember eating. And the test attempts to account for other factors that might affect children’s diet, like age, gender, and whether they were from a wealthy or poor background.

There was a strong association between seeing ads and cheap foods that children can buy with their pocket money. TV marketing exposure – even at just moderate levels – up to doubled the chance of a young person being a high junk food consumer.

But more surprising was the link to high cost, less accessible foods such as takeaways and ready meals. The associated risk of children eating lots of these was around one to two thirds higher if they remembered seeing lots of TV marketing.

This doesn’t prove that junk food ads cause kids to have an unhealthy diet. But it suggests the two may be linked. And it could mean those young people who see lots of adverts are at risk of eating hundreds of extra junk food products every single year, according to our calculations.

Crucially, only commercial television was linked to unhealthy eating. Non-commercial channels that don’t show ads, such as the BBC, weren’t associated with higher junk food eating. This implies it’s the ads, not the TV, that’s to blame.

The streaming problem

It isn’t just traditional TV that’s a problem. Streaming appears to be too. It offers on-demand, and often unsupervised, access to TV shows, many with a growing number of ads.

Our work is the biggest UK study looking at how TV streaming might affect diet. And the tests linked both moderate and high levels of commercial streaming with increased risk of eating lots of food and drink. For some of the products in the survey, the risk of eating lots of these types of junk food was more than double for those who streamed extensively compared to those who didn’t. And again, non-commercial streaming had no effect, suggesting that this correlation is related to the adverts being shown.

This is alarming. It means young people face two mediums that might be affecting their health. It also means that advertisers may choose to move their products on to streaming services if they aren’t included in advertising laws. As the popularity of streaming grows, things could get worse.

And that has the potential to be a disaster for childhood obesity and public health.

An update to marketing regulations is needed

Our study looks at one set of young people at one time. This means that we cannot say adverts cause children to eat junk food.

But our findings follow previous research in pointing to a link between TV ads and what children eat.

This isn’t because regulations are bad. It’s because they’re 10 years old, and the way young people watch TV has changed.

This has created an unforeseen loophole. And it’s time for an update.

Not showing junk food ads before 9pm would help address the issue of family entertainment shows that we know young people are watching. It’s where the evidence suggests we’ll see an impact. And it wouldn’t need new legislation, as the rules already exist and can be changed through instruction by the Government.

We know this won’t solve the obesity epidemic the UK faces. But it’s a straightforward way research shows could make a difference.

Government can act. And we think that quick action will lead to sustainable improvements for the nation’s health.

Christopher Thomas is a researcher in Cancer Research UK’s Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention

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