Could ‘nudge theory’ – seen as having had a significant impact on the way the UK has sought to tackle Covid-19 – also shape policy choices on obesity once the dust settles? Ben Cooper reports.

‘Nudge theory’ and the behavioural economics framework from which it stems have enjoyed a pretty good run for their money in UK policy-making for the past decade, and their influence during the Covid-19 emergency has also been abundantly clear.

Whether that influence will be seen as positive when different approaches to the pandemic come to be assessed and compared, however, is far from certain.

Meanwhile, UK policy responses to the novel coronavirus, and how they were received, could in the longer term inform the action governments take in areas like health, the environment and other key issues; not least, those impacting on the consumer market.

UK obesity-related policies currently under consideration of greatest significance to food manufacturers can be found in the second phase of the childhood obesity action plan, unveiled in June 2018, which contained a pre-9pm ban on TV advertising for food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), as well as restrictions on volume-based price promotions and in-store merchandising. These proposals were the subject of consultations completed in June and April 2019.

Officially, the UK government has been “evaluating the feedback”. In truth, the corner where these proposals now rest would make a field of elephant grass look like the manicured green of a bowls club.

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Nevertheless, at some point, government attention will return to the pre-existing epidemic of obesity and, as with everything, future choices will be viewed in a post-Covid-19 context. The link between the UK’s Covid-19 response and its approach to addressing obesity is particularly interesting because of shared associations with nudge theory.

The assertion often accompanying nudge approaches – that stricter control measures to further the greater good are inherently unpopular and counter-productive – is generally over-egged. Very occasionally, events come along that show how people really feel about the common wellbeing.

That the behavioural scientists and nudge theorists advising the UK government placed such emphasis on the potential negative impact of people becoming fatigued with the control measures, speaks to an inherent scepticism. Even at a time of unprecedented crisis, people rejecting state ‘interference’ in their lives seemed their abiding concern. This was the prime justification for the UK delaying its lockdown, a decision widely criticised by medical experts because it set far too much store in behavioural modelling and risked massively increasing the UK’s eventual death toll.

The abrupt change of tack in response to that criticism leaves the Government and those advisers with questions to answer. 

The pandemic, and the level of public health and welfare intervention required to combat and recover from it, has all but silenced those who rail against government overreach, paternalism and the nanny state. Popular support for the ideals of small government would be hard to come by when people are craving security, reassurance, information and a lot of help. Particularly while the guiding hand is a providing hand, nanny is far more likely to be welcomed with a hug than a kick in the shins.

Looking more broadly and longer-term, a new post-coronavirus social contract is a trending topic the world over. If this is the epoch-defining moment many believe it will be, received wisdom about how governments address the conflicts between commercial freedoms and wellbeing is in for a thorough examination.

At the very least, for self-evident reasons, the post-pandemic environment is likely to be more receptive to a stronger lead from governments on preventive health. That said, as much as the time may be right for more direct action to drive behaviour change relating to health, climate change or other issues, there will be no tightening of company-targeted measures to tackle obesity in the UK anytime soon. 

The food industry will barely need to argue against subjecting companies to additional burdens when already dealing with such adversity. Meanwhile, the huge administrative and logistical resources, particularly in the Department of Health, required to battle Covid-19 will limit what else government can do for as long as the pandemic continues.

In spite of its rather faltering performance last month, nudge theory is likely to retain its allure with policymakers in the UK and elsewhere. One of its attractions is that, while chiefly associated with neoliberalism, nudge measures can garner a wide spectrum of support.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy (which could be extended to dairy-based drinks) illustrates this particularly well. At face value, it’s an interventionist, fiscal measure, a lever of traditional rather than behavioural economics. It wasn’t a gentle prod to the subconscious, like many nudges are, but it had a clear behavioural rationale. It was fundamentally about changing the ‘choice architecture’ facing consumers, a defining hallmark of nudge theory, by encouraging reformulation. And, it worked.

Measures with strong nudge credentials are the most likely to be incorporated into the obesity plan when the government returns to that agenda. Extending SDIL to milk-based drinks and agreeing to some controls on in-store merchandising, for instance, are more consistent with steps adopted so far.

It is often said nudge theory equips the persistently ineffective endeavour of public health messaging with some of the guile and trickery it has to counter from the world of advertising. Its effectiveness in changing behaviour stems from triggering instinctive, less-considered responses in consumers. Expecting people to resist things that give instant pleasure and reward by a rational evaluation of long-term adverse consequences – the basis for much traditional health messaging – is extremely optimistic. Advertising, on the other hand, is all about triggering impulse and offering gratification.

It always seems mystifying to read how behavioural insights are increasingly being employed in marketing and advertising. Whenever were they not? Perhaps, behavioural science is being brought to bear in more formalised ways today, but advertisers have been nudging consumers for years.

Another aspect that suggests nudge theory is more marketing than anthropology is the evidence of inspiration and creativity. The behavioural scientist who suggested placing the image of a fly on a urinal as a means of getting men to aim more accurately didn’t arrive at the idea by scientific methods. It was far closer to the process that led to a Cadbury chocolate ad being fronted by a gorilla playing the drum break from Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight‘.

It is arguably when proponents of nudge theory ladle on protestations of scientific validity that it looks most vulnerable to the accusation of being pseudo-scientific psychobabble. This also contributed to making its intrusion into the Covid-19 emergency so disconcerting. The Government’s insistence that it was being “led by the science” was denounced by esteemed epidemiologists as disingenuous, with damning critiques questioning the scientific rigour behind the modelling its behavioural advisers were using.

On the other hand, there’s a growing belief the initially relentless reinforcing of messaging on hand-washing and face-touching – both straight out of the nudge playbook – made a significant contribution and may yet cast behavioural science in a better light.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was seen as initially placing too high a priority on adhering to his strong libertarian instincts as the coronavirus attacked those he was charged to protect. In the wake of the pandemic, being considered insufficiently concerned about public health will not be a good look for any government. Moreover, data linking overweight and diet-related disease with higher coronavirus morbidity will add potently to the arguments in favour of stepping up anti-obesity interventions everywhere.

Right now, phase two of the childhood obesity plan has all the political momentum one might expect from the legacy project of the Prime Minister’s predecessor’s predecessor.

As has been said numerous times over the last few weeks, after the pandemic, nothing will be quite the same.