"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Encouraging Behavior Change - Is It Manipulation?

I spent most of my professional life in the business of ‘behavior change’, developing programs to encourage people to modify and improve their health practices.  I learned early on that people will change their behavior not so much on the basis of the intrinsic value of the product, but on its ascribed value.  “If you can sell soap, you can sell nutrition” I trumpeted in India 1970 and helped launch programs of ‘Social Marketing’, a discipline based on commercial advertising which is still current today. 

There was and is nothing new in the idea.  Advertising executives, masters of subtle persuasion have sold us products based on the promise of everything but the benefits of the product itself. In the heady days of Madison Avenue in the 50s and 60s, cars were sold for sex appeal, cigarettes for their cool, and beer for camaraderie. Image was everything.  Times have changed and advertising often hypes a car’s mileage or safety rating – but these ads are aimed at people whose image depends on cost-effectiveness, frugality, and common sense.  Camry, for years the best selling car in America is many things, but sexy it is not.  It is definitely sold on image, just a different image.

The Prius is a famous example of image trumping reality.  The car has become so much the darling of the ‘progressive’ environmental set, that it is the go-to product for comedians pillorying the chattering classes.

There are too many wonderful and successful examples of commercial advertising dressing up mundane products in brightly colored Hollywood wrappings to name. The point is now as clear as it always has been – advertising deliberately, unashamedly manipulates the consuming public.  New laws have been passed to regulate downright deceit, but canny hucksters have found ways to be honest but to convey something dishonest.  We, the consumers, are complicit in this.  Who wants Soviet-era Brabants, products in plain, cardboard packaging, or Iranian chadors? We are what we buy and have been ever since the first cavewoman put on a bear-tooth necklace.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have written a book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (reviewed in the New York Times 8.22.08) where they talk about using advertising techniques to promote better welfare among the American populace.  The authors have generated renewed interest because they have been recently hired as consultants to the UK Government to apply their techniques to social programs there (BBC Hard Talk 10.24.12).

As mentioned above, this concept is not new.  Long before Social Marketing, governments engaged in propaganda, whether it was promoting the martial image of National Socialism the solidarity of Soviet Communism, or the patriotic duty of buying War Bonds.  In recent years state governments have sponsored various health campaigns like the famous Florida effort to reduce teenage smoking.  The campaign was based not on health benefits, but played on adolescents’ rebellious behavior and idealistic sentiments. “Every dollar you spend on cigarettes”, said the ads, “goes into the pockets of fat-cat capitalists” (enter the Monopoly-style image of Wall Street).  It worked.

Thaler and Sunstein focus on another aspect of market manipulation – simple changes in service offerings which make it impossible for a consumer not to do the right thing.  The famous and oft-quoted example given is the fly painted on the inside of a urinal.  Men apparently like to aim and shoot, and most hit the fly with little lateral spray.  The book Traffic talks of many efforts by highway planners to manipulate driver behavior.  The length of each dotted line on an interstate, for example, influences speed – the shorter they are, the faster the perceived speed of the driver, who then slows down.  Another example is the elimination of trays at school cafeterias.  Students cannot simply pile their trays with food, but must go back for seconds.  The result is that they eat less, and addressing Sophomore Spread becomes less of an issue.

All this fine and good.  Why shouldn’t government resort to the same manipulative techniques as advertising?  Why is selling better nutrition any different from selling soap as I proposed 40 years ago?

The troublesome proposal of Sunstein and Thaler is the ‘opt-out’ clause.  Product manufacturers and service providers, based on solid psychological research, understand that the loss of something is perceived as far worse than never having had it in the first place.  Rebates and coupons are staple items of marketers because people pay full freight up front, get used to the item, and infrequently do the cumbersome paperwork to be returned a few dollars.  Opt in to a particular medical, insurance, or savings plan and once you see the benefits, you are unlikely to opt-out.  Opt-in, Opt-out is far more successful in confirming a consumer choice than simply asking customers “Would you like to buy X?”. Money-back guarantees are staple marketing ploys.

The charge of manipulation comes when an offeror makes it easier for you to pick his choice rather than the one you might choose upon reflection.  It might be opt-in style - Pick Plan B and if you don’t like it you can opt out - or simply placing the Plan B choice at the top of the list.  Marketers have worked tirelessly not only to manipulate your purchase of one product, but to choose the most profitable from among many.

Still all well and good, but the authors cynically say that this ‘freedom of choice’ is libertarian in origin.  Giving people choice is the right thing to do to protect individual liberty.  They go on to say that this manipulation is also paternalistic, for yes, the government does know better than the general public. This avowed paternalism is what is most disturbing and distasteful about the book:

Their entire line of argument — that people frequently make decisions that are not in their own best interest, that often “free markets and open competition will tend to exacerbate rather than mitigate the effects of human frailty” [and that government must step in to right these wrongs] is deeply subversive of standard free-­market, anti-regulation, small-government thinking but supportive of many interventionist inclinations.

A long book (almost 300 pages) to state the obvious and then come to the most insidious conclusion.  Read it to better understand the psychology of marketing, but be prepared for the predictable ‘progressive’ conclusions.

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