Most irritating things in media No.7: ‘Nudging’

My Dad introduced me to the delights of modest gambling at a very early age, via the penny arcades – or, more appropriately, the one-armed bandits – on our holidays in Mablethorpe.

Of all the various games, the one that both fascinated and frustrated me was the one depicted here, where piles of pennies grew, regularly nudged forward to a precipice, promising an enormous windfall when they inevitably tumbled over the edge. Except it was far from inevitable; I would send penny after precious penny down the slot only to see it rest on top of others, creating sizeable copper mounds, but very rarely did the nudging yield any reward.

‘Nudging’ became one of the hippest marketing buzz-words after Thaler and Sunstein published their book ‘Nudge’ in 2010, based on the theories of behavioural economics. Nudging has its place, but that place is quite specific and often quite small.

When the government slashed its advertising budgets in 2009, it declared that it would explore the full range of behavioural techniques, including PR and ‘free’ social media, to ‘nudge’ people into better, healthier, more responsible lifestyles. Francis Maude left no-one in any doubt that he thought paid-for advertising was a complete waste of government money. Four years later, the news that deaths from drink-driving increased by 26% in 2012 has not surprised many of us in advertising and marketing but it should dismay us all.

‘Nudging’ can make an important contribution, but only when other communications and marketing have created strong desire, taking people to the brink of purchase/action, and it works best for high-interest, pleasure, luxury categories. It barely takes any nudging at all in-store to get me to succumb to a chunky Kit-Kat.

But for most government campaigns, where behaviour change is going to be difficult and tedious, ‘nudging’ can too easily become nagging, which all too easily becomes inaudible, as anyone with a teenager will tell you. To get people to the brink of wanting to undertake serious behavioural change requires highly emotional and motivating messaging. More shove than nudge. Ideally, your family and friends will also see and understand these messages so they can support you through the ordeal.

Hats off then to the Advertising Association for their speedy and robust response to that depressing Department of Transport news.We simply cannot afford to let advertising’s nay-sayers get away with rubbishing our profession when we have so much evidence that proves its value. A glance at the many IPA Effectiveness Award-winning government campaigns will demonstrate the incredible results advertising has achieved for society – have a look herehere, and here for examples. There’s more than the reputation of our industry at stake here; they are gambling with people’s lives.

  • Tess Alps
    Tess Alps
    Chair, Thinkbox
  • Posted under
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