When "nudge" is just another word for "advert"

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Most people will have heard of the “nudge unit” – a crack team of behavioural economists installed in Downing Street which has the power to wire policy directly into our frontal cortices, using only cutting edge neuroscience and door-to-door leafleting.

For those that haven’t, “nudging” is an evidence-based strategy that aims to influence people’s behaviour towards certain of David Cameron’s more benign policies, such as cutting energy use and reducing obesity. It’s a canny way of motivating people without offering financial reward. To get people eating healthily, for instance, it helps to put apples, rather than crisps, on eye-level shelves in shops.

At base, however, “nudging” is just a scienced-up and buzzworded-down way of saying “advertising”. The trouble for Cameron is that, for every penny spent marketing his policies through nudge, thousands more are spent by the advertising industry to encourage us to go in what is often precisely the opposite direction. So, it’s not surprising that the effects of nudging have as yet been lukewarm.

Part of the problem is that the nudgers aren’t yet fully realised advertising men. Advertisers know the importance of targeting an audience, but nudging is very one-size-fits-all. What is perhaps more troubling for Cameron is that his core audience and his core voters are not often the same people.

A US study by Dora Costa and Matthew E Kahn of the University of California, Los Angeles showed that conservatives are far less susceptible to nudges in the direction of energy conservation than liberals. Researchers designed leaflets that let households know how much energy they were using compared to their peers (with a smiley face if they were using less and a frowny face if they were using more), and handed them out to a mix of conservative and liberal households. While this nudge usually lowered carbon consumption in liberal households, it actually had the opposite effect in conservative homes.

The researchers thought that the “boomerang” effect had been much stronger among conservative voters. If they saw they had used less energy than others (smiley face), they were likely to increase their energy consumption to catch up. This was because they had not been on board with the basic energy saving  ideology from the start; the leaflet merely nudged them towards the norm.

Cam can’t

A nudge unit is, all in all, an odd choice for Cameron. Not only are conservative voters less likely to be on board with the policies, which generally are more tailored to appeal to the community-minded, they are also more likely to act in defiance against any such “nannying” moves.

So, if they want to extend their influence, nudgers need to take more lessons from the advertising industry. This is inconvenient for them, as they like to brand themselves as a breed apart. Nudging itself, you see, is an industry – and markets itself sagely, knowing our weakness for all things science. It’s not science, though: it’s leafleting, and right now it’s leafleting all the wrong doors.

An image taken at Bristol Science Centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit: stewartlee.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage