Tag Archives: advertising

Thorntons and the corporate nudge

I had the expectation that the Easter vacation would probably enable me to escape well-intention nudges towards my eating habits – it is, after all, a time for the indulgent consumption of all things sweet! I was thus surprised (actually not all that surprised) to find some very interesting corporate nudging on my young daughter’s Thorntons “Girls Gift Parcel”.

On top of the box, which tantalizingly contained White Chocolate Buttons (40g), Milk Chocolate Buttons (40g), Milk Chocolate Raisins (40g) and Vanilla Fudge Cubes (40g), was a small picture of tooth bush brandishing mouse. The smiling mouse rather annoyingly states, “I know to brush my teeth twice a day!” As a parent, I have to admit that it is reassuring to think that every time my daughter reaches for a milk chocolate raisin or a fudge cube that she will be reminded of the importance to brushing her teeth.

But the cynic in me couldn’t help looking at thing differently. Isn’t it slightly strange that a chocolatier is promoting dental care? Isn’t this a little like McDonalds placing a statement on a Big Mac that reads “Ronald knows the importance of a healthy and balanced diet – and, by the way, you wouldn’t get anything remotely resembling that inside this box!”

My point is that when corporations nudge, it often serves to ethically cleanse their product of the potential damage it is doing to you. Perhaps an alternative strategy would be to supply information on the role of chocolate in accelerating dental decay. In addition, Thorntons’ teeth cleaning campaign feels somewhat patronizing when you are a parent – children know they should clean their teeth, getting then to actually do it is a different thing entirely. In a rather selfless act of hard paternalism I have thus been protecting my daughter’s teeth by assisting her consumption of her Easter chocolate mountain.



Social marketing and segmenting publics

The Department of Health’s White Paper, Choosing Health: making healthy choices easier (HMSO, 2004) sets out an agenda for enabling people to make ‘healthy’ decisions – presented as an appropriate route through the extremes of paternalism on the one hand and an unfettered market on the other. Choosing Health can therefore be understood as part of a wider move towards a self-consciously soft form of paternalism in UK public health policy. Public information, encouragement and shaping “the commercial and cultural environment we live in so that it is easier to choose a healthy lifestyle” are some of the means by which the UK Government defines its role in prompting behavioural changes regarding health.

from Department of Health (2008) Healthy Foundations. A segmentation model

This is not simply the promotion of ‘informed choice’, but involves explicit attempts to reconfigure the environment in which people make health-related decisions – whether conscious, habitual or emotionally-driven. The realisation of soft paternalism in health behaviours is enabled by the tools and techniques of segmentation and social marketing, which are used in “creating a demand for health choices”. The relatively new disciplinary area of social marketing (see for example, the Institute for Social Marketing, Stirling) draws on recent psychological and behavioural insights about the socio-cultural nature of the decision-maker, their tendency towards following social norms, their systematic biases, and their fallibility in the face of complex, long-term decision-making. Segmenting involves dividing the public into categories such as ‘discovery teens’, ‘younger settlers’, ‘older jugglers’ or ‘active retirement’. In addition to tailoring messages in this way, social marketing aims to use the ‘4Ps’, known as the marketing mix: product, price, place, promotion in order to achieve a ‘social good’ such as a changing damaging behaviours, breaking bad habits and changing attitudes.

This approach requires new infrastructures of governing. Research centres such as the National Social Marketing Centre (NSMC) deploy the very same tactics themselves in order to ‘socially market’ social marketing (French, 2008; Ambitions for Health, 2009). Corporate sponsorship is mobilised in order to extend the distribution channels for health promotion – for instance, within the ‘5 a day’ or ‘Change4Life’ campaigns. And Social Marketing advisors are now embedded in government departments such as DEFRA and the Department for Health, developing segmented approaches to government policy.

social marketing in UK health policy

Social Marketing is just one of the ways in which libertarian paternalist policies aim to shape decision-making environments. Its growth and potential impact requires sustained interrogation: what are the political implications of differentiating publics using segmentation models – does this create new forms of public value or constrain public solidarity and accountability in public services? Does social marketing constitute new governable subjects, seeking a more consumerist relation to the state and public services? Does this kind of psychological profiling reduce human character to the realm of socio-demographic modelling, limiting the range of alternative identities which can then be taken up? What about the irony that the rampant consumerism created through commercial marketing is now being utilised to counteract some of the problems that it produced? Or as author of VirtualPolitik, Elizabeth Losh, puts it, how can the government be both media-maker and regulator? And perhaps most critically, in transposing corporate methodologies into state practice and policy making itself, do we enjoy a more personalised debate about the delineation of public goods, or is this question sidelined by a concern instead for the differentiation of the public good for segmented publics?


Sticks, stones and lexical nudges

Government campaign, 1943 artist: weimer pursellWe have known for sometime that words have the power to radically change our patterns of behaviour and to potentially cause hurt to our personal lives and circumstances. The rise of commercial advertising during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries illustrated how the strategic deployment of catchphrases and media messaging could radically alter people’s patterns of consumption and brand preferences. The twentieth first century is, however, bearing witness to new forms of governmental intervention within the lexical worlds of advertising and promotion. The state is, of course, no stranger to the use of persuasive words in its own attempts to encourage changes in citizenly behaviour. Numerous public marketing campaigns have used powerful taglines to bring moral weight to governmental desires. Famously, for example, the British government’s fuel efficiency campaign during the Second World War was under-girded by the assertion that to ‘ride [one’s car] alone was to ride with Hitler.’ However, what we are seeing now is not the crude replication of such obvious ideological discourses by states, but an active recognition of the more subtle of enduring powers that reside in syntax. This is a form of lexical power that appears to reside much more in the adjective than the sentence as a whole.

photo by joan thewlis@flikrThe governmental deployment of Lexical nudges operates in two primary ways. First, governments have recently become much more proactive in regulating the adjectives that make unhealthy or financially damaging practices appear to be relatively healthy or benign. In the US, for example, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act proposes inter alia to give the Food and Drug Administration power to control the marketing of tobacco products. In a nod to the persuasive potential of the adjective, it is thought that the FDA will use its new powers to prevent the rather misleading use of “lite” and “mild” qualifiers in naming of cigarette products (Economist, 2009 Vol. 39 no.8636:55).

A second approach to the lexical government of behaviour is suggested within the UK’s Institute of Public Policy Research’s recent report, Warm Words (2006). The IPPR commissioned the Warm Words report in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the ‘linguistic landscapes’ that are shaping and informing British understandings of, and behaviours towards, climate change abatement. Produced by Gill Ereaut (qualitative research practitioner) and Nat Segnit (novelist and journalist), Warm Words identifies a complex and confusing set of linguistic repertoires used to describe the climate change threat by British newspapers, government departments, businesses and media outlets. Focusing on linguistic codes, routines of language, and tonality, Ereaut and Segnit identify three dominant linguistic representations of climate change in Britain: 1) Alarmism (characterized by ‘quasi-religious language tropes’ and adjectives such as “awful”, “terrible”, and “immense”); 2) Mockery and British Comic Nihilism (identified by the use of ‘blithe’ and ‘whimsical’ language); and 3) Pragmatic Optimism (focusing on the everyday language of ‘small changes’, ‘ease’, ‘convenience’, and ‘effortlessness’) (IPPR, 2006: 7-8). Outlining the confusing and ineffective nature of each language trope in promoting changing public behaviour’s towards climate change, Ereaut and Segnit claim that Britain requires a more shrewd and subtle approach to the linguistic framing of climate change (ibid: 8-9). According to Ereaut and Segnit, the words used to promote the government of climate change in Britain need to tap into a distinctively British linguistic tradition that invokes the ordinary hero of Dunkirk and Live Aid.

In the context of the broader debates that surround the normative potential of libertarian paternalism, it appears that the second approach to lexical nudging carries with it the greatest potential dangers. To control adjectives that are misleading, and potentially promote destructive behaviours, appears to constitute an important part of good government: namely not to deny the opportunity to pursue personal choices, but at the same time ensuring that these choices are not made under false pretences. It is the more comprehensive promotion of effective government-speak suggested in the Warm Words report that is more worrying. Its suggestion that the syntax of climate change government should be grammatically sealed within a psychological appealing narrative appears, in part at least, to be about the lexical closing-off of response options. Ereaut and Segnit admit as much when they assert that the presentation of facts about climate change should disappear from government rhetoric (their presence merely suggesting that the state has something to prove). The most important lesson of Orwell’s 1984 is that the control of language options is directly linked to the ability to determine how to think and choose in different ways. Language, in all of diversity, provides a varied matrix of freedom. Surely the role of the state should be to protect us from a varicious exploitation of lexical forms that lead to personal harm and not to circumscribe the freedom that we can all find in independent expression: win the argument, don’t close it off.