Consumers need more than a nudge

Lucy Handley is Marketing Week’s deputy features editor and has also worked in advertising agencies so can bring a unique perspective to client-agency relationships when writing on this topic.

Telling people exactly what is good or bad for them can be more useful than ‘nudging’ them into something.

While browsing the trendwatching website, I came across an ad from Nestle Waters North America, talking about how calorific fizzy drinks and juices can be.

The ad goes through to a ‘Beverage Pyramid,’ on Nestle’s website, explaining that I should drinking water first, followed by tea and coffee and then low fat milk, diet drinks, juices and then fizzy drinks.

No surprise that a bottled water company recommends people drink, er, water. But what is interesting is that when researchers at the John Hopkins School of Public Health put notices up in corner shops in Baltimore, stating the calorific value of fizzy drinks, sales of them dropped hugely.

The researchers pushed the point home in their posters, saying: “Did you know that working off a bottle of soda or fruit juice takes about 50 minutes of running?” Sales of those kinds of drinks duly dropped by a substantial 40 per cent.

Marketers often repeat the mantra that people have choice in what they consume or that they are intelligent enough to regulate their own calorie intake. I agree to a certain extent, but have also tried to apply this to myself.

I know I shouldn’t eat a bar of chocolate a day, but I can’t stop going to the newsagent to buy one maybe four times a week, to stem any afternoon slump. If that chocolate wasn’t there, I wouldn’t eat it (but as I am in central London there is no problem with distribution), but I’d still desire it.

So, people need real life reasons to do or not to something. Sometimes nudge theory is great, where it gets people to do something without them really even thinking about it (shown in action at the urinals in Schiphol airport that have a fly stuck to them so men automatically aim at the fly rather than peeing on the floor, reducing mess by 80 per cent).

However, at other times people need reasons to do or not to do something spelling out to them, as in the Baltimore example.

Obviously Nestle North America has a vested interest in wanting people to pay for something that they can get for free by turning on a tap, but in a country where two thirds of people are obese, maybe it should be applauded for encouraging people explicitly away from calorific drinks.