There’s a quote that runs, ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions’. I’m not a big believer in hell, but it’s certainly true that we’ve all got a lot of ‘best laid plans’ that never quite worked out. Finding ways to encourage people to succeed in their resolutions is a huge business opportunity (think of all those different diet books), and something that many charities and governments are involved in too.
Persuading someone to spend a month eating cabbage soup and LOSE A WHOLE DRESS SIZE IT REALLY WORKS is probably not the most ethical thing to do, but there’s meant to be a more responsible, caring side of this technique called ‘social marketing’.
This term’s often used for government awareness campaigns – trying to encourage people to stop smoking, or become organ donors. The key is in the tactics used to change behaviour – we’re not talking smoking bans, but more subtle methods to tip behaviour in the desired direction. A good example is this week’s suggestion that cigarette packaging should be completely plain and free of branding, to reduce the glamour of smoking and perhaps stop younger people from starting in the first place.
On the surface this all sounds pretty uncontroversial – what’s wrong with cutting the number of smokers, especially when most of them want to quit anyway? Surely there isn’t a dark side to this kind of marketing. But an interesting debate on this week’s Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 brought some problems to light.
For one thing, who decides which behaviours are the ‘right’ ones? One accusation made against the idea of these ‘nudge’ campaigns was that they can be really patronising. The examples that spring to my mind are campaigns telling you that fast food isn’t good for you – we all know this, the problem is that we carry on eating it anyway. This isn’t an awareness issue, it’s something much more complicated. And while I support the smoking ban, I’d be outraged if the same thing happened to Snickers bars. I’m quite capable of ‘enjoying Snickers responsibly’ and not putting my health at risk.
On the other hand, the best social marketing campaigns are pitched just right and come across as empowering rather than patronising. I think the Change 4 Life campaign was a good example of this – eyecatching, funny, and not too didactic. The point was to help people make the choices that they wanted to make anyway – be healthier, do more exercise, and find ways to fit these behaviours into their lives without any really difficult changes.
A much more negative piece of criticism that came across in the BBC debate was that these campaigns are reducing our freedom. What if you want to smoke, or you don’t want to be an organ donor? Is a social marketing campaign that tries to change your behaviour actually reducing your liberty? I agreed with Richard Thaler, co-author of ‘Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness’. His view was that you aren’t reducing someone’s liberty if all you’re doing is giving them a choice.
For example, adding an option to become an organ donor onto driver’s license renewal forms has increased the number of people willing to donate in many states in the US. It’s a simple yes/no question, and it makes it easy for people to do something they’ve already decided they’re in favour of. Things get a little more tricky in the case of the smoking ban in the UK – this is definitely taking away a person’s freedom to smoke in public, but it’s also taking away the very real danger of passive smoking from other people who choose not to smoke themselves.
I think the smoking example confronts a really important point – in this life, you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you want the freedom to smoke, you have to accept that your choice might well have seriously negative consequences for you and others. And in the UK, it’s the government (and by extension everyone else) that has to pay for your treatment if you get lung cancer or any other serious disease.
So from a healthcare perspective, social marketing may actually be not just about helping people to make the ‘right’ choices, but also about saving money. Newspapers love shouting about the ‘outrage’ of rising cancer rates, but I don’t think you can blame the government for trying to bring them down by reducing the number of smokers. No one ‘chooses’ to get lung cancer – and in fact their freedom of choice over whether or not to smoke is significantly reduced because nicotine is addictive. Most smokers want to quit, but haven’t managed it yet.
The most interesting part of all of this is the way humans like to think they have freedom of choice, but conspicuously don’t. Fast food restaurants went through a phase of selling fruit and salads because their customers asked for them. But sales were poor – we asked for fruit with our burgers, but we didn’t really want it. So I’d say it’s pretty clear we need a nudge every now and again, whether it’s reminding us to go for that screening appointment or making it a bit easier to recycle. In the end it’ll be us complaining if we fail to make the choices we said we would.