One study of four US cities found that overall advertising density was two- to four-times higher in low-income postal codes than in high-income ones. This is in large part because the land there is cheaper. Wealthier areas are also more likely to be deemed to have conservation or heritage value, and so it’s harder to obtain planning permission to erect ads there. Privately owned sites will generally have an easier time obtaining such permission, unless especially motivated or politically connected citizens mount opposition to it. In the UK, the exact procedures vary from council to council, although the National Policy Planning Framework sets out general stipulations.
Less affluent areas (for instance, in Newcastle, England) have more dense concentrations of billboards for less healthy foods. The Newcastle study found that 20% of the advertising land space was for food, with a KFC product being the most commonly advertised food. As Adams points out, “less healthy foods are cheaper, calorie-for-calorie and gram-for-gram”. Thus it’s not a paradox that people with less spending power are being disproportionately exposed to adverts for unhealthy food.
Outdoor advertising is also more prevalent in neighbourhoods with higher proportions of certain racial minorities, such as black residents in New York City. This holds even for more affluent, predominantly black neighbourhoods.
“In high-income white areas, there just wasn’t outdoor advertising,” says Sonya Grier, who researches marketing at American University in Washington, DC, and has examined outdoor-advertising density. “Living in an upper-income white neighbourhood was kind of protective” against marketing of products contributing to obesity. This was in stark contrast to inner-city minority neighbourhoods where billboards, bus shelters and walls commonly promote soda, fast food and sugar cereals. These visuals influence people by amplifying the many other kinds of unhealthy-food marketing – including on TV, magazines, radio and internet – aimed particularly at young people and minorities.
A ‘double inequality’
On its own, advertising influences preferences for food high in salt, fat and sugar. But abundant public advertising is linked with not just poorer nutritional health, but also limited walking and recreational space caused by the uneven layout of cities.
According to Carla Denyer, a city of Bristol councillor who also works for the Adfree Cities network, long-standing inequalities and dual carriageways cutting through more deprived communities mean that low-income residents are disproportionately exposed to outdoor billboards targeted especially at motorists zooming through.
Denyer gives the example of Lawrence Hill, one of the poorest areas of Bristol, which is next to a confluence of major roads and has a very high concentration of outdoor adverts. “It has some of the worst air quality in the city, and yet it also has some of the lowest car-ownership rates in the city. So there’s a real kind of double inequality there. Because the people that live there are not the people who are causing this pollution, but they happen to live in it and they’re facing premature deaths and breathing problems in their children.” At the same time “they’re also being subjected to advertising telling them how great these SUVs are that are actually causing all of these problems.”