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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Budget 2017: What announcements will Philip Hammond make?

What will the first budget after Brexit hold for the economy?

This spring’s Budget - set to be announced on Wednesday 8 March 2017 - will be forced to confront the implications of last June's Brexit vote, along with dealing with issues of reliance on consumer spending, business rates and government borrowing. The government also (quietly) announced on Monday night that it will be asking ministerial departments to outline cuts up to 6 per cent, a potential nod for what’s to come next week.

All these things, along with the fact the Chancellor Philip Hammond is scrapping the spring Budget, meaning this announcement should be an interesting one.

The big story at the moment focuses on borrowing. The Resolution Foundation has predicted that healthier-than-expected tax revenues and the lack of a Brexit effect so far will lower Budget borrowing forecasts by £29bn between 2015-16 and 2020-21. 

The FT reports a possible £3bn reduction in borrowing, to £67bn. They also pin this optimistic prediction to higher-than-average self-assessment tax receipts, after changes in the taxation of dividends.

The Chancellor will potentially stick to the three key changes he made from George Osborne’s former financial commitments, according to The Sun. These consist of not predicting a surplus in 2019/20, slightly relieving the cap on welfare spending and no longer committing to reducing debt. The paper also predicts he’ll announce a change to the controversial business rates that were recently released, that could leave “shopkeepers and publicans clobbered with tax hikes of up to 400 per cent".

What do we know for sure?

The government has announced a few key changes in in advance of the Budget.

  1. The Spring Budget 2017 will be the final Budget held during springtime
  2. Finance Bill will follow the Budget, as it does now
  3. From 2018 "Legislation day" will move to the summer
  4. An Autumn Budget means tax changes will be announced well in advance of the start of the tax year
  5. 2018 will see the first Spring Statement