It’s a safe bet we’ll keep endangering ourselves

The Government has long tried to scare the public out of bad habits – now it wants to cajole us. But any consequence-based approach won’t work.

As I stood on the Tube platform the day before the funeral of the late Queen Mother, I wondered idly whether I should wear a black shirt to work in memory of her alleged pre-war political tendencies. I looked at the map on the wall and reflected on the fact that, in 14 years, my career had moved precisely three stops along the Central Line – from Lancaster Gate to Oxford Circus. As it dawned on me that one of the reasons for my slow tubular progression was probably a congenital tendency to make deliberately futile, antagonistic gestures, a young woman behind me lit a cigarette.

London being London, no one said anything. Most completely ignored her and some flashed dirty looks, tutted or sucked their teeth.

On the whole, the smoking ban on the Underground is highly effective: such instances are very rare. But this woman’s addiction was so strong that she was not worried about getting caught or suffering the fuming ostracism of commuters.

She was willing to risk such torments – in addition to being fully aware of the health dangers of her habit – to have her fix.

As we can see from today’s Budget, addictions are a lucrative business for the Treasury. The Exchequer pulled in over &£14bn from alcohol and tobacco in the 2000-2001 tax year. The problem, of course, is that taxing these products does not reduce consumption.

Even more sincere and wholehearted attempts to discourage self-destructive behaviour, without directly benefiting the Treasury, have failed – most conspicuously advertising.

Last year, for instance, the number of people killed in drink-related road accidents rose to the highest level for a decade, despite a fall in the overall number of road accidents. Smoking among teenagers is at an all-time high.

The Government has tried to influence behaviour by focusing on the shocking consequences. A recent example of this is a series of commercials for the Department of Health, through Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO. The ads emphasise the devastating impact smoking can have on people’s lives and are reminiscent of campaigns to stop drink-driving, stop young people experimenting with drugs, reduce teenage pregnancy rates and prevent HIV infection.

Many of the behaviour patterns such ads try to change are addictions in one form or another – drug abuse, smoking, alcoholism or over-eating. They are about affecting behaviour which the individuals concerned – and society at large – know is socially and personally unacceptable.

The defining feature of addiction is that the prospect of the activity is strongly rewarding, in spite of the knowledge that the consequences will be detrimental.

In a book published last year called Breakdown of Will, psychiatrist George Ainslie argues that addiction is rational, stemming from an innate human tendency to rank immediate rewards over long-term ones.

Ainslie describes an experiment where he asked people to imagine they had won a contest and could choose between a cheque for &£100 – payable immediately – and a cheque for &£200, post-dated for three years. Most subjects would say that they would rather have the &£100 now. When asked whether they would prefer &£100 in six years or &£200 in nine years, virtually everyone picked the &£200 option – even though it was the same choice, deferred by six years.

Anyone who works in financial services marketing will understand this phenomenon. Many financial services products are priced to take advantage of such reward-seeking behaviour – all those credit cards offering “low introductory rates”, for instance.

The problem is that addicts know their behaviour is detrimental to themselves, but continue to practise it because the promise of an immediate reward is so seductive. People prefer smaller, earlier rewards to larger, deferred ones.

The decision to take the drug or drink a couple of pints before driving is not an irrational one – stirred up by the dark demons inside – but a rational one, arrived at by offsetting the immediate reward against any possible future consequences.

If Ainslie is right, the Government’s strategy of trying to scare people away from their addictions is all wrong.

Of late, the Government has in fact toned down the shock tactics. This summer’s anti-drink-driving campaign has a softer tone and appeals more to the selfish nature of drink-drivers. One ad includes the image of a young woman in a bikini, with the strapline “Now available! Ex-boyfriend on a year’s ban for drink-driving”.

It promises to be just as ineffective as all the other attempts to stop drink-driving through advertising. Though it has dropped the shock tactics, it still focuses on consequences.

Focusing on the consequences of addictive behaviour, whether through shock tactics or persuasion, will not produce results. The Government will only start to challenge these behavioural patterns effectively when it recognises that they are enjoyable. And that the best strategy is not to remind people of the consequences of their behaviour, but to help them to control it.

The reason why the incident of the woman smoking on the Tube platform was so dramatic was because the ban on smoking is normally so effective. In other words, one of the best ways to restrict consumption of socially harmful products is to impose direct bans on them to limit their use – banning smoking in public places such as the workplace, pubs and restaurants; placing a complete ban on drinking and driving; and reintroducing stricter licensing laws.

However, given the Government’s inept resistance to such moves – and deliberate collusion with the tobacco and alcohol industries – any such suggestions will probably remain futile, antagonistic gestures.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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