Most irritating things in media #8: ‘Nudging’

My Dad introduced me to the delights of modest gambling at a very early age, via the penny arcades – or, more appropriately, the one-armed bandits – on our holidays in Mablethorpe.

Penny nudge

Of all the various games, the one that both fascinated and frustrated me was the one depicted here, where piles of pennies grew, regularly nudged forward to a precipice, promising an enormous windfall when they inevitably tumbled over the edge. Except it was far from inevitable; I would send penny after precious penny down the slot only to see it rest on top of others, creating sizeable copper mounds, but very rarely did the nudging yield any reward.

‘Nudging’ became one of the hippest marketing buzz-words after Thaler and Sunstein published their book ‘Nudge’ in 2010, based on the theories of behavioural economics. Nudging has its place, but that place is quite specific and often quite small.

When the government slashed its advertising budgets in 2009, it declared that it would explore the full range of behavioural techniques, including PR and ‘free’ social media, to ‘nudge’ people into better, healthier, more responsible lifestyles. Francis Maude left no-one in any doubt that he thought paid-for advertising was a complete waste of government money. Four years later, the news that deaths from drink-driving increased by 26% in 2012 has not surprised many of us in advertising and marketing but it should dismay us all.

‘Nudging’ can make an important contribution, but only when other communications and marketing have created strong desire, taking people to the brink of purchase/action, and it works best for high-interest, pleasure, luxury categories. It barely takes any nudging at all in-store to get me to succumb to a chunky Kit-Kat.

But for most government campaigns, where behaviour change is going to be difficult and tedious, ‘nudging’ can too easily become nagging, which all too easily becomes inaudible, as anyone with a teenager will tell you. To get people to the brink of wanting to undertake serious behavioural change requires highly emotional and motivating messaging. More shove than nudge. Ideally, your family and friends will also see and understand these messages so they can support you through the ordeal.

Hats off then to the Advertising Association for their speedy and robust response to that depressing Department of Transport news.We simply cannot afford to let advertising’s nay-sayers get away with rubbishing our profession when we have so much evidence that proves its value. A glance at the many IPA Effectiveness Award-winning government campaigns will demonstrate the incredible results advertising has achieved for society – have a look here, here, and here for examples. Or watch this film about the success of the government’s anti-smoking campaign.There’s more than the reputation of our industry at stake here; they are gambling with people’s lives.

 

  • Mike Stroud

    On the drink-driving question, it’s a matter of quality.  Those ads on TV with the barman going through the complete “lifecycle” of consequences is compelling, engaging and thought-provoking. It is brilliant and I would be amazed if it didn’t have a positive effect.

    Similarly, the suggestion that “‘nudging’ can too easily become nagging” also comes down to quality.  The case studies in Thaler & Sunstein’s book where nudging has been effective would not have been seen as nagging. The whole point of the nudge is that it’s barely noticeable.  The biggest mistake the UK government made in this respect was to tell everyone it was going to start nudging them!  Completely defeats the object of the exercise.

  • Phil Barden

    ‘To get people to the brink of wanting to undertake serious behavioural change requires highly emotional and motivating messaging’

    Sorry Tess but I don’t think you understand nudging! Read the success stories of the Govt’s ‘nudge’ unit in public policy. Very simple interventions, often at zero/low cost, can change behaviour by triggering heuristics (implicit decision-making ‘rules’). There are dozens of studies on this now (and we have client case studies too) that prove that you can change behaviour without changing minds/attitudes (and there is evidence that behaviour change precedes attitude change).

    ‘only when other communications and marketing have created strong desire, taking people to the brink of purchase/action, and it works best for high-interest, pleasure, luxury categories’

    What’s your evidence for this? Read Wansink on changing something as basic as students’ eating habits in a canteen. All done by nudges.

    • TESS ALPS

      Maybe I don’t understand it as well as you, Phil. The student canteen example is not, I think, a representative one because the emotional communication around diet and food choice is happening daily at an almost deafening level, mainly through editorial coverage. I didn’t say the emotional communication had to be advertising. Against that backdrop, behavioural nudging plays its proper role. The point the blog makes is that the government rejected paid-for advertising as one vital component in the mix, when most marketers know it’s about using these disciplines together. The results are all too evident.

    • TESS ALPS

      …but should have added that I totally buy into implicit marketing and heuristics. TV advertising works mostly at that level. You might be interested to read our own studies using neuroscience and implicit attitude testing that you’ll find in the research section at http://www.thinkbox.tv

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