Are shock tactics back?

Jonathan Bacon

The Government’s return to shock tactics in its latest anti-smoking and anti-obesity advertising has sparked controversy over whether such ploys are more effective than a ‘nudge’ approach.

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January is the month of ‘fresh starts’ where people set out to change their lives for the better and brands target consumers with adverts about summer holidays and fail-safe diet plans. This year, though, the most striking new year messages have come from government campaigns - most notably its anti-smoking advert showing tumours growing on a cigarette - rather than the marketing machinery of a big corporation.

So does this return to shock tactics also represent the abandonment of more nuanced approaches to behavioural change? When the coalition government came into power in 2010, it indicated that it was a believer in ‘nudge theory’: the idea that gently ‘nudging’ people to change their behaviour over the long-term can be more effective than simply telling them what to do. Opponents of the new anti-smoking advert claim the Government has reneged on this approach by preaching directly and graphically about a private lifestyle matter.

The advert has become a viral sensation since its launch at the end of December. Within a fortnight, it became the Department of Health’s (DoH) most watched YouTube video ever, with more than 2 million views. The spot has attracted plenty of controversy and dozens of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority over the disturbing nature of the images, which could result in an investigation by the regulator.

The Government insists its hard-hitting approach is a necessary means of getting people to quit. DoH marketing director Sheila Mitchell says: “We aimed to strike a nerve with the campaign and [the] viewing figures show that it has already become a talking point.”

At the same time, the DoH has ratcheted up the intensity of its anti-obesity drive Change4Life by disrupting the campaign’s plasticine world with live action footage showing the dangers of unhealthy food. This forceful approach contrasts with Change4Life’s previous attempts to nudge people towards a healthier lifestyle with positive messages about wholesome food and exercise.

There are signs that nudging techniques can yield positive results. For example, the percentage of UK smokers has fallen steadily over the past 40 years as a result of public health initiatives, from 45 per cent in 1974 to 20 per cent in 2010. But as pressure on the NHS budget mounts, the Government fears change is not happening quickly enough. The obesity issue is particularly worrying; the DoH warns that up to 48 per cent of men could be obese by 2030 if no action is taken.

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Nudge theory was set out by ‘behavioural economics’ experts Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their acclaimed 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. They suggest that governments and organisations can indirectly make people change their ways by offering ‘choices’ that are designed to achieve a certain outcome. The smoking ban in indoor public places could be termed a nudge, for example. By asking smokers to make the choice between smoking outside or not smoking at all, the Government attempts to nudge more people into quitting.

Rory Sutherland, who explored the use of behavioural economics as president of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising from 2009 to 2011, says there is a place for the kind of shock tactics used in the DoH’s new anti-smoking advert. However, he argues, follow-up activities must support people as they look to make changes in their lives.

“If you just frighten people and don’t have corresponding activities to help people quit, then there’s a danger you create the fear and anxiety but not the change in behaviour,” he says. “If you make me feel bad about something but don’t give me something I can do about it, then in an unconscious way I almost end up disliking you and your message.”

The DoH says that in addition to the advert, it is offering people a free ‘Quit Kit’ through pharmacies to support their attempts to stop smoking. Sutherland says advertising can provide a “trigger” that jolts people into following a course of action - particularly as the latest advert reveals new evidence that every 15 cigarettes can cause potentially cancerous mutations.

He says: “The new campaign makes sense because it’s reframing the idea of smoking to suggest that every cigarette does incremental harm to you and incrementally increases the risk [of cancer]. It takes away the fatalism that was probably fixed in people’s mindset where they believed the damage was already done.”

Cancer Research UK head of health campaigns and marketing Abigail Brown agrees that shock tactics and nudging techniques can work at different times to achieve the same aim (see Viewpoint). She argues that in the case of the Government’s new anti-smoking advert, a dramatic message was needed in order to drive the message home to young people.

“The Government’s last advert like this was eight years ago so there will be many people in their late teens who probably haven’t seen this kind of anti-smoking advertising before,” she says. “The new advert isn’t a very nice visual but cancer isn’t a nice thing. It’s trying to bring that forward because a lot of people can’t really comprehend the consequences of smoking.”

However, Brown adds that shock tactics are not always effective and that an evidence-based approach is necessary for determining the best tactics in each situation. Cancer Research UK explored a range of options when looking at how best to encourage people to visit their GP upon discovering an early symptom of cancer.

“We found that using a hard-hitting approach in that instance didn’t really work because people are very afraid,” says Brown. “If someone thinks they might have cancer or has a symptom, they’re likely to try to push it out of their mind.”

Brown says that as a result of this response, Cancer Research UK uses positive messages about improving cancer survival rates and the important role of GPs to ‘nudge’ people into taking action. “Those positive, encouraging messages have come out of the consumer insights that we’ve run,” she adds.

Last year, the charity overhauled its brand to make it “less clinical” and “a bit warmer” by focusing on communicating its research and education functions. This has further supported its efforts to encourage longer term behavioural change among people affected by cancer.

Saying it loud

Commercial brands are also carefully shaping their customers’ behaviour around their own values. Outdoor clothing label Patagonia, for example, has put its concern for protecting the environment at the heart of its brand identity and uses nudging techniques to encourage people to adopt a more eco-friendly lifestyle. This includes offering its customers different options for how they can recycle and re-use its products (see Case Study).

However, in the run-up to Christmas, Patagonia went for a more direct approach when it ran a campaign telling consumers ‘Don’t buy this jacket’. The campaign, which appeared on a single giant poster in central New York, urged people not to buy Patagonia products unless they needed them.

European marketing director Jonathan Petty says this bold statement, which was intended to reduce wasteful consumerism during the festive period, was a “managed risk” that served to generate a huge amount of awareness about the brand and its outlook.

“It was about using PR and the power of social media,” he says. “Our sales might have gone down but in fact we’re growing rapidly as a brand. The ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ campaign went viral after people saw it because they wanted to find out what it was about. The feedback on social media has been amazing.”

This attention-grabbing approach, which the brand also adopted the previous Christmas, has helped to distinguish it from other clothing companies, though Petty insists that advertising is a rarity for the brand during the rest of the year. Instead, it looks to nudge its customers towards environmentally-friendly ways of thinking on a day-to-day basis.

“We’re not here to be like the big clothing brands that are focused on selling a lot of stuff. We ask people to consider the environment before they purchase and buy only what they need. Consumers initially discover us because they’re looking for a product they need for a sport but once they start to peel away at the brand they realise how different we are,” Petty claims.

Of course, not all brands will necessarily focus on worthy or charitable causes when trying to change consumers’ behaviour. Relatively simple retail techniques like customer loyalty cards or point-of-sale merchandise could all be described as ‘nudges’ in that they attempt to encourage consumers to adopt particular patterns of behaviour that support wider brand aims.

Sutherland argues that as scientific understanding about human behaviour improves, marketers have a huge opportunity to develop more and more sophisticated nudges. “The social sciences are making very significant progress and it would be insane, both for the defensive and imaginative value that these sciences have, if the marketing discipline turned its back on them,” he says.

Changing perceptions

Weight loss brands are among those to have taken a more scientific approach to marketing this January. Weight Watchers, for example, is using psychology to help members identify practical ways of managing weight loss through its ‘New Approach’ campaign. The brand says it is the first weight loss organisation in the world to use the “new breakthrough science of hedonics”, which studies the role of pleasant and unpleasant sensations in human behaviour.

Meanwhile, diet-friendly cereal Kellogg’s Special K is continuing to reposition itself as a long-term weight management brand rather than a quick fix following a brand overhaul last year. This month, Special K is running a new campaign that urges women to “cut out the fat talk” and adopt a more positive attitude towards weight loss (see Q&A).

The campaign, part of a £3m marketing push for January and February, asks women to focus on what they aim to get out of their own weight loss programme. Special K brand manager Sophie Colling says the brand’s research shows that more than two-thirds of women recall “talking themselves up” when they have successfully lost weight in the past.

“We’ve noticed that health trends have changed and that the things women do to look and feel their best have changed,” she says. “That includes ditching the quick-fix diets. We’re looking for smaller, everyday steps to manage weight long-term.”

Colling admits that this gradual, nudging approach to weight loss will mean that perceptions of Special K will also take time to change. She notes that the brand is still remembered by many for its quick-fix diet challenges that urged customers to attempt to drop a jeans size in two weeks.

“We’re aiming to move away from the challenge campaigns and stand for something new and different that women are looking for in their lives,” says Colling. “We’ll be tracking emotive statements about the brand through our research partners to look at whether we’ve managed to dial up that emotional connection.”

Gently nudging people with small changes is sometimes the only way to achieve a successful rebranding. Restaurant chain Ask Italian, for example, began a rebranding process in 2010 that aims to put “the inspiration of Italy” at the centre of the business.

However, rather than surprising or confusing customers with a sudden brand overhaul, the chain has gradually introduced changes in a bid to nudge people towards acceptance of its new identity. More than two years into the rebranding process, about half of Ask Italian’s restaurants have been renovated in its new Milan-inspired interior design, as the chain has prioritised menu and service changes first.

“We knew when we launched the vision that we had to change in increments,” explains marketing director Catherine Salloux. “There are so many touchpoints with a restaurant that you can’t hit people over the head with a huge number of changes instantly - you have to take them on that journey with you.”

Salloux says this careful approach has resonated with both customers and staff and provided a platform from which the chain can communicate its new identity more explicitly in the coming year. “If you can convince more than 2,000 employees that what you’re doing is meaningful and motivating and works for customers, then they will get behind you and we’ve got a tremendous energy in the business at the moment,” she adds.

“Changing a culture is difficult to do and it takes time - now we need to bottle some of that and get it out to more of the external world.”

Standing firm

The decision of whether to nudge, shove or shout at consumers is highly dependent on a given brand’s aims, but it is clear that all tactics can work if used in the right way. Coca-Cola has used plenty of nudging techniques in the past to portray itself as a caring, responsible brand that is concerned with tackling obesity, such as through its sponsorship of major sporting events like the Olympics.

This month, though, the brand is stepping directly into the obesity debate by launching two new TV advertisements that address the issue head-on. The first, which is running on US cable networks, promotes the company’s record of making low-calorie drinks and points out that “all calories count, no matter where they come from, including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories”. The second, part of a global campaign, shows a range of exercise activities that can add up to burning off the 140 calories in a regular can of Coke.

The ads come as politicians in the US continue to debate the best way to deal with the country’s escalating obesity crisis. Last year, New York’s board of health approved a ban on the sale of large, sugary beverages in fast food restaurants, which is due to come into effect in March, and other states are using shock tactics in their anti-obesity advertising.

Although Coca-Cola insists that its new adverts are not a defensive reaction to attacks on the soft drinks industry, a spokesman says they will help the brand to “be a part of the conversation”. So while these techniques might be Coke’s best option, it uses them in the face of more direct messages from the Government.

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