Friday, 13 July 2012
Nudge Theory in UK Government Alcohol Policy:
Orwellian Nightmare or Websterian Pragmatism?
I was entirely ignorant of this topic until a few days ago, when I attended a meeting with a member of the Prime Minister’s Behavioural Insights Unit, also known as the ‘Nudge’ unit. The invitation arose from another meeting to which I’d been invited, this time of the Department of Health’s Policy Research Programme chaired by the government’s Chief Medical Officer.The theme of both was UK alcohol policy. The CMO, Professor Dame Sally Davies, is trying to build a consensus around evidence-based alcohol policy through the PRP, drawing on the expertise of a wide range of people. In the meeting I attended, it was health policy academics and professionals, along with some Home Office and other government officials. I was, as far as I could tell, the only academic present as a researcher in advertising and branding strategies with an interest in policy. The other 20 or so academics were all working in health policy and related areas.
It was a very well-informed and interesting discussion. All concluded that ‘more research is needed’, which is fair enough, although there is a lot of pertinent research in the marketing literature of which some people seemed unaware. I pointed some of this out. I also pointed out that the marketing industry does not apply the same standards of evidence to its strategies that government committees seem to do to health policy. This means that industry lobbies can often level devastating criticisms at the evidence base of policies to which they object. The cleverer parts of the marketing industry understand well the limits of empiricism.Marketing strategists operate on insight. This is subtly different to evidence. They don’t have to build cross departmental consensus for policies in the same way as governments. They get two or three weeks to flesh out their intuition about cultural currents and human behaviour, then they go to production and launch, sometimes with profound effect. So there is a risk that while policy makers are wheeling out the big guns of social research and consensus building to try influence behaviour, marketing strategists could be running rings around them by using nimble urban warfare tactics.
In the CMO’s meeting, I related my experience of alcohol marketing, the tone of which changed dramatically in the 1980s. Legendary BMP DDB Madman John Webster created the Hofmeister Bear to re-position light beer (’lager’ to me) as a fun, cheeky and cuddly consumer choice with great appeal to young men and children. Webster, who was also responsible for the Smash Martians and the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster among many other iconic advertisements, realised that he could sell alcohol with the same branding panache as he could instant dried potato or breakfast cereal.Webster’s actor-in-a-bear-suit shtick was swiftly followed by more campaigns by Foster’s, Castlemaine and many others that tapped into a vein of subversive, youthful fun. In short order, countless new branded spirit mixers appeared, nicknamed alco-pops by the press for their child-friendly brand positioning. They were marketed like Rowntree’s fruit pastilles with vibrant colours and tacit promises of sensory ecstasy. Not only did alcohol marketing assume an air of youthful frivolity hugely out of step with the pedestrian and deeply conservative tone of alcohol ads before the 1980s. Suddenly, kids’ first introduction to alcohol was made much more agreeable. Instead of having to negotiate the bitter taste of traditional beer or the throat-clenching fumes of neat spirits, they could cut their drinking teeth on fruit flavoured alcopops or tasteless fizzy lager. And they could buy it from the mini market to drink down the park. A cultural revolution had occurred, through marketing, and no-one seemed to notice.
Naturally, the alcohol industry would demur from taking all the credit for this revolution. Marketing operates within wider cultural currents, and marketers fulfil their obligations to shareholders professionally within a strict regulatory framework. Nonetheless, it seems clear that marketing and branding strategies can, at the least, magnify and deepen behavioural changes that are already occurring. As my own research with top international agencies has taught me, they form their strategies not through social scientific evidence, which is merely a tool to reassure (or to bluff) clients, but through insight earned from a fluid and creative engagement with consumer cultural knowledge (a fifty minute talk I did on this was put on youtube, if you’ve the stomach for it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLT0jAAR0B8.Which brings me to ‘nudge theory’ and the Behavioural Insights Unit. I discovered, with the help of Google, that the idea of nudge is credited to Professor Richard Thaylor, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago. Nudge theory has gained influence in Barack Obama’s administration, as well as David Cameron’s. I also discovered that media coverage of the BIU has been, well, mixed. Just today (July 13th 2012), a piece in the Daily Telegraph is followed by many reader comments http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9392224/The-nudge-nudge-unit-has-ways-to-make-you-pay.html# expressing suspicion or hostility toward the idea that government might use behavioural control methods that fall outside the areas of parliamentary debate and legislation.
This response seems entirely understandable to me. Consumers have been suspicious of marketing techniques since Vance Packard alerted the world to the uses of depth psychology and ‘subliminal’ persuasion in Hidden Persuaders. People don’t like the idea of being manipulated, but their fears are often directed at the wrong object, in my view, as I argue in this op ed piece in The Psychologist http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=20&editionID=150&ArticleID=1228I am phlegmatic about nudge initiatives. My view is that our ‘choices’, and our very subjectivity, are culturally framed, by marketing agents or other influences. This is human existence. Freedom is something we find in the interstices of life. I reserve my view on behavioural economics- from my very sketchy understanding of it I can’t see any theory there. Indeed, its main virtue seems to be that it is a-theoretical. Neither behaviourism nor economics have a great track record in explaining human behaviour, so they seem to be odd bedfellows. But if a plausible label legitimizes the use in policy formulation of the kinds of pragmatic and fluid consumer cultural understanding that drives commercial insight, then I can’t see any ideological problem with that. To me, it just seems to be good administration to think about the behavioural consequences of framing something this way, or that. People are suspicious of marketing techniques. We don’t like to feel manipulated. But ‘nudge’ initiatives are, at least, transparent, unlike the marketing strategies to which we like to feel we are immune.
I happen to be writing a new book for Palgrave MacMillan that will explain my views on the role of marketing insight in the cultural framing of behaviour, drawing on my ad agency research. Watch this space! Meanwhile, I’m happy to contribute to policy nudges if I can.