Reflections on Holiday Food Promotions

08 February 2023

Title image caption: A photo taken by a team member at their local supermarket.


A Snapshot of a Health-Enabling Environment?

According to a YouGov survey, this year exercise, losing weight, and diet were the top three most common New Year’s Resolutions in the United Kingdom (UK). And this January, some marketing and promotions have shifted to reflect that.


All around Glasgow, our Scottish Obesity Alliance (SOA) team has noticed a shift in marketing targeted toward healthier habits this January. In local grocery stores, plant-based food sections have temporarily doubled in size with signage for people who resolved to eat less meat this year. Adverts at bus stations for sugary foods have been replaced with those offering promotions for joining a local gym.


What if we viewed these temporary and cyclical changes as snapshots of what could be if companies who are supposed to be feeding and caring for their communities actually prioritised society’s health? What if, year-round, we had an environment that encouraged affordable, accessible health and fitness? What if the UK became a place where everyone could find affordable healthy foods and drinks available in their local communities, and healthy foods were more convenient than unhealthy foods? What innovations would we have if CEOs and marketing executives spent their time prioritising the creation and facilitation of healthy lifestyles, and if we lived in an environment that ensured everyone who resolved to eat healthier could do so?


Companies might say that they are just following people’s buying patterns. They may cite the need to make profits for their shareholders and blame their consumers for their inability to follow through on their resolutions. But at the SOA we think that everyone should be able to make their food choices in an environment free from the marketing of unhealthy food and drink.


Perhaps companies should make their own New Year’s Resolutions to shift their marketing to promote a healthier food environment, year-round.


What do you think the world would look like if the environment promoted health first? Let us know @soa_tweets.


Too Many Holiday Junk Food Promotions

Even though some New Year's Resolution advertisements may show us what healthy environment promotion could look like, there is still far too much marketing and promotion of unhealthy foods, particularly around the festive holidays. Our SOA team took photos of some of the promotions we encountered in our daily lives, both before and after Christmas.


Capturing photos of promotions in people’s everyday lives is what we will be asking young people to do in our upcoming Youth Advocacy Project. So, we thought we would give it a try.


Our team noticed several features, two of which we thought worthy of including here.


A huge volume of treats and celebratory festive promotions

Our team was surprised by the sheer quantity of sugar being advertised and promoted over the holidays. One commented: “I definitely have more sweets over the holidays, but I really noticed how much I was being pushed to eat them. Everywhere I went to was offering a special holiday treat.” 


Another team member remarked: “I really noticed for the first time how companies are pushing to commercialise holiday sweets. Kind of exploiting how special the holidays are as a way to ‘treat ourselves’ – even though in my family, holidays already involve a lot of home baking as part of our tradition. I noticed how inundated I was with ads and foods at the front of the supermarket, competing in a sense with our family’s traditional baking.”


More adverts to generate emotional consumption

Our team also noticed how adverts used psychology, for example offering comfort in cold weather or after long days. “It was during my walk to work that I noticed the adverts the most, particularly at bus stops. While waiting for buses during the cold spell in December I would see adverts for Christmas-themed hot drinks and I would contemplate going to purchase one to heat me up while waiting.” 


Another team member noted: “I would go most of the day not being affected by these adverts, but on the walk home, I would pass enticing pictures of chocolate, and I would find myself debating in my head whether or not to stop at the store to pick some up. I often have these debates on the walk home, but didn’t connect them to the adverts until after I started paying attention. It’s disgusting and infuriating that a company sees my health as a worthwhile sacrifice just so some executives can get richer.”


A team member captured a bus stop advert promoting holiday-themed sugary drinks.


Impact on young people's health

If we, adults who work in the obesity policy space, found ourselves struggling with the marketing and promotions in our environments, we can hardly imagine what young people are experiencing, with so much dedicated marketing targeted towards their age groups. That is why it is so vital to work with them to understand and help them communicate their experiences, so that MSPs can better understand what it is like being a young person growing up in Scotland today.


To read more about our upcoming youth advocacy video project, see our blog.


If you have experiences with food marketing and promotions that you’d like to share, tell us about it (@soa_tweets).