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Supermarkets or Super Marketers? Unmasking the marketing 'magic'

If like me you’re easily sucked into a new TV drama or find yourself endlessly scrolling on social media when you promised yourself you would just answer that one quick DM… then this might be the article for you. Actually, even if you have the ability to avoid the gravitational pull of social media and instead pick up a copy of the free commuter tabloid on your way home from work you are still likely to find this insightful and eye-opening.


Food advertising is so seamlessly woven into our everyday lives, it’s hard to know when we are consciously being shown a new product or instead a carefully curated marketing machine. You might be wondering if this level of advertising exposure really does have a wider impact... Well, the reality is, obesity continues to be a growing problem in the UK, one that affects 63% of adults [1]. With 1 in 3 children leaving primary school either with overweight or obesity, it’s probably time we take notice [1]. Whilst there isn’t a quick or simple fix due to the multidimensional nature of obesity, it questions if what we’re seeing on our screens is benefiting us in the long run?


In the space of 28 years (1992 – 2020), there have been 14 government strategies and 689 policies aimed at reducing obesity [2] – that isn’t a typo, there really have been 689 (arguably unsuccessful) policies! The current 2020 Obesity Strategy is attempting to halve childhood obesity by 2030, which if achieved, will be quite a feat.

In this most recent attempt, there is a focus on reshaping external influences such as advertising guidelines and product placement, compared to the previous attempts which relied on the behavioural change of individuals [3].





Current advertising rules and regulations


Children are frequently targeted by marketing campaigns, with TV advertising continuing to be one of the most popular advertising channels due to its vast reach [4].  However, brands are not permitted to advertise directly to children (under 16) due to their underdeveloped capability of critical thinking as well as likelihood of persuasion towards purchasing a product [5]. However, this doesn’t stop the marketing machines from working their magic through the use of cartoon characters and animations in a bid to appeal to children. Examples include the recognisable cereal box characters such as Tony the tiger, Coco the monkey and Snap, Crackle and Pop.


The regulations surrounding cereal box advertising aimed at children are particularly murky – this breakdown provided by the Advertising Standards Authority attempts to find some clarity.



Confused? You’re not the only one thinking these are very similar…


Whilst brands can’t target children through screens nor through celebrity persuasion, they can rely on shelf appeal and brand curated characters. This is especially powerful when your trusty little assistant shopper joins you for the weekly supermarket shop. Evidence surrounding the influence of packaging aimed at children through the use of characters and animations is extensive, one that is expanding into yoghurts and other food products alike [6].

Where are we now?


In October 2022 the first wave of HFSS (High Fat, Salt and Sugar) restrictions came into force, regulating the location of these products in shops and online. HFSS products are no longer permitted at the end of aisles, store entrances or at the checkout (albeit this regulation only applies to stores over 185 square meters) [7].


Next up, restrictions on the promotion of HFSS foods


Initially scheduled to come into action on the 1st of October 2023, restrictions of HFSS products by volume price, such as Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) and 3 for 2 deals, and free refills on sugar sweetened beverages have now been delayed (again) until 2025 [8]. The government have decided to delay the implementation of the regulations due to the rise in the cost of living, a crisis affecting a wide proportion of the population, hitting those individuals with a tight food budget hardest – more on the connection between poor nutrition and the cost of living in a later article...


TV and online advertising

Another regulation currently on hold is the advertising of HFSS foods on TV and online during the hours of 5:30am and 9:00pm [8]. The intention is to ban HFSS products from our screens until younger viewers are tucked up in bed. This ruling was initially scheduled to come into action last October (but it too got delayed last summer), and so some marketing machines got the cogs turning on some clever product-less campaigns. You might be familiar with a particular red and yellow fast-food giant using a speechless and product-less advert, going by the name “Raise Your Arches” (are you following me?). If you are yet to come across the catchy ad, it is a demonstration of marketing genius. Without so much as showing any branding, product nor premises the advert continues to drive consumers towards the fast, convenient and cheap food outlet. The only small elusion to the brand is a simple curve-edged M on a red post-it note. Whilst I applaud the creativity, I can’t help but wonder if this is a trial run at producing further catchy eyebrow raising campaigns – I certainly can’t say I’m lovin’ it!

Scheduled now to be enforced in October 2025, brands will not be able to show HFSS products on TV screens and online during certain hours [9]. However, the current guidelines only specify product specific rules as not to pigeonhole a brand, no matter how synonymous with HFSS products they are [9].


We may hope that we will eventually see a shift in the type of products pushed through TV and online advertisements, but only if the deadline doesn’t continue to be pushed back.


But let’s be realistic, adverts are just one way a brand can show off their new product or campaign, and their marketing teams have numerous other methods up their sleeves to sell their products, some as simple as supermarket shelves.


Are Supermarkets just Super-marketers?

We’re all frequent visitors to a supermarket in some capacity, whether that’s online or in person. When we are filling our baskets, we like to think we are in control of making the choices when it comes to what reaches the checkout. In reality, we are heavily influenced but what is made available at eye-level and arms-reached by the retailer and the brands – this is called choice architecture. So if you love a good bargain, take a look at the promotions such as buy one get one free and 3 for 2. They will make you believe that you will get extra product for the same price or cheaper, whereas they actually increase the amount of food and drink we buy by one-fifth and increase our spending by 20% [10, 11].

Shame that these promotions aren’t mainly on carrots and radishes. In the UK food retail price promotion are more widespread than anywhere else in Europe, with higher sugar products promoted more than any other foods [10].


What the tempting marketing ploy doesn’t tell you is that 80% of processed food in the UK is unhealthy [12].  Processed and ultra-processed foods are typically cheaper, easier to store and are highly palatable, whilst also being highly profitable and intrinsically unhealthy. In the UK over half the energy we consume comes from ultra-processed foods (UPF’s), with sales of UPF’s growing year on year [13].


The market for unhealthy food is enormous, meaning there is greater financial gain from the perspective of the brand [12]. With processed foods high in salt, sugar and fat three times cheaper per calorie than healthier food, it’s easy to see why brands continue to market energy-dense nutrient-poor food to consumers [12].


'Unhealthy food is significantly cheaper per calorie than healthy food' – Henry Dimbleby, Author of the National Food Strategy and co-founder of LEON [12].


We’re all aware of the recent rise in the cost of living with everything creeping up in price over the last couple of years, so there is something to be said for multibuy deals and unlimited refills on sugar sweetened beverages. However, we don’t see these promotions in place for fruit and veg, and healthier alternatives. Discounts and promotions may keep money in our pockets in the short term, but food-related diseases cost the UK £74 billion each year, meaning we’re all paying for it in the long run [14].


So perhaps we need to see a greater shift, one towards inclusion rather than exclusion, promotional incentives on buy two vegetables and get a third free, whilst supporting farmers and the suppliers that grow and produce our all-important vegetables.


What is your opinion on promotional restrictions and the presence of “junk food” in the media?
Do you think change needs to be implemented or are we capable of making our own decisions?
Should the government have control over our supermarket shelves and TV screens?
Let us know your thoughts on the matter, it’s certainly not a conversation that is going away anytime soon! Join the conversation over on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram

This article was written by Jemma Jessup for Rocket Fuel Wellbeing.


Hello, my name is Clem.
I’m an evidence-based, award-winning nutritionist (MSc, RNutr) and workplace wellbeing specialist.

I help organisations and individuals make sense of nutrition to nurture their health and wellbeing.
If you want to know more about nutrition and health, subscribe to my newsletter or get in touch with me 



[1] NHS (2019) National Child Measurement Programme, England 2018/19 School Year. Available at: (Accessed: 13/09/23)    


[2] NIHR, School for Public Health Research (2021) Successive governments’ approach to obesity policies has destined them to fail, say researchers. Available at: (Accessed: 13/09/23)  


[3] Thesis, D. and White, M. (2021) Is obesity policy in England fit for Purpose? Analysis of government strategies and policies 1992-2022. The Milbank quarterly, 99(1), 126–170. DOI:   


[4] Cairns, G. et al. (2013) Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary, Appetite, 62, pp 209-215. DOI:


[5] ASA (2023) Children: Targeting. Available at: 13/09/23)

[6] Boyland, E. (2023). Is it ethical to advertise unhealthy foods to children? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 82(3), 234-240. DOI: 10.1017/S0029665123000010

[7] GOV, Department of Health and Social Care (2023) Guidance, Restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar or salt by location and by volume price: implementation guidance. Available at: (Accessed: 13/09/23)



[9] GOV (2021) Introducing further advertising restrictions on TV and online for products high in fat, salt and sugar: government response. Available at: (Accessed: 13/09/23)




[11] GOV, Department of Health and Social Care (2020) Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. Available at: (Accessed: 13/09/23)


[12] National Food Strategy (2021) The Plan. Available at (Accessed: 13/09/23)


[13] Monteiro, C. et al. (2019). Ultra-processed foods: What they are and how to identify them. Public Health Nutrition, 22(5), 936-941.


[14] Dimbleby, H. and Lewis, J. (2023) Ravenous: How to get ourselves and our planet into shape. Profile Books, main edition. London.

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