Last week, I read the following newspaper headline: “MPs deride Lansley’s ‘nudging’ deal with food and drink firms“. The story was based on a report by a committee of UK MPs on the effectiveness of UK Government health policy, and in particular its “Responsibility Deal” with food and drink companies, which came in for a fair bit of criticism.
Somehow, in the public consciousness of the UK, “nudging” has become synonymous with some form of self-regulation, where Government takes a step back and relies on the private sector to do what’s best. So, for example, under the Responsibility Deal, various food and drink companies have signed up to “pledges” in the form of various actions designed to have a positive impact on the nation’s health. A very large proportion of these include providing more information to consumers, or donating money to health charities and programmes.
Most of these pledges are not really nudges at all. The occasional one is perhaps, at best, an elbow twitch, quickly suppressed as the firm concerned (unsurprisingly) remembers that it’s there to make a profit. For example, there is Heineken offering to distribute glasses that display information and alcohol units – and that are branded with the Heineken logo.
Creating a good nudge requires understanding what influences people when they make decisions and tweaking the setting in which they make choices to guide them to the better outcomes. For example, putting the healthy food at eye level in shops. It is more libertarian than banning things, in that it does not restrict people’s choices. But actually, it can require some quite interventionist Government policy, whereby Government tells firms how to market and sell products. And every good nudger knows that just providing information to consumers, which forms the basis of many of the Responsibility Deal pledges, is, unless carefully designed and managed, doomed to fail.
Nudge fans: I fear that unless something is done to salvage its good name, nudging is headed for public relations failure.