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Nudge Unit hype is just hard-sell advertising. Don’t buy it


NUDGE units are nothing new.  They used to be called advertising agencies.  Their function is subliminal, using the power of suggestion to blockade your critical thinking and steer you towards a biased point of view.   

The problem occurs when such techniques, and the experts who practise them, find their way into government.  Since Saatchi’s famous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ campaign for Margaret Thatcher, governments have become drunk on the power of propaganda (for that is what advertising is, the hammering of a consistent message until it is received), and now invest vast quantities of your money in it.  

In truth, of course, the effectiveness of intense propaganda goes back a lot further, to Goebbels, the master (by the way, it was, in my day at least, ruefully acknowledged by graphic designers that the swastika was the most powerful logo ever to be developed and exploited). 

We used to laugh at people who would say: ‘Advertising doesn’t affect me, I watch a commercial on TV and I never respond to its platitudes. In fact, I’ll deliberately go out of my way to buy an alternative product, just to spite them’. Such sceptics didn’t realise how thoroughly manipulated that behaviour was.   

For selling a particular brand isn’t the essence of the expenditure – it’s selling the concept and reality of the branded world that’s the point.   

You’re highly unlikely to buy a plain box of cornflakes (Tesco own brand isn’t plain).  You’ve been educated to believe that brands come from the real world and plain means unknown, untested and, crucially, unfriendly.   

I’ll share an anecdote with you.  In the 1970s, a particular oil company decided to test the power of its brand with a simple and brilliant idea.  It adapted one of its petrol stations into a ‘research centre’, whereby theirs and all their competitors’ branded pumps were installed.   

Then motorists were invited in with the offer: MARKET RESEARCH – COME IN AND FILL UP – THE PETROL’S FREE!  The oil firm then monitored which pumps motorists chose, having eliminated price as a differentiator.  One of the pumps had no branding.  Not a single motorist filled up there. 

We used to talk about the ‘power of six’.  Hit the viewer six times before they pay attention.  Hit them another six times before the message sinks in.  Hit them another six times before they conclude it must be true.   

It’s a variation on a First World War admiral’s declared strategy for winning a battle: HIT THEM FIRST, HIT THEM HARD, KEEP ON HITTING.   

Oh, and essential for truth, blind them with a bit of science – perhaps some meaningless gobbledegook ‘scientific’ term, delivered preferably by serious-looking men in white laboratory coats and/or with impressive qualifications.   

Show a graph or two.  They probably won’t understand it, but that’s not the point. It must be true because it’s a graph.  Sound familiar? 

When hitting the ‘consumer’ in this way, and it isn’t a metaphor, these repetitive messages physically hit the brain.  So, MULTI-MEDIA is an essential ingredient to the success of your campaign, because wherever they turn, they get hit with the same message.   

Broadcast media, press and posters, all with the same buzzwords, the same graphics (yellow, red & black, by the way, are still the most powerful combination).  Sound familiar?   

The only way you’ll escape being influenced is to watch nothing, listen to nothing, keep your eyes closed at all times when out and about.  Impractical.  Which is why we’ve had to learn to live with advertising.   

But it’s also why, in my view, governments should relegate those practices and those people back to the commercial sector and never, ever use them against their own citizens. 

I’ll leave the last words to the late legendary American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks, who hated my industry, but who I would graciously acknowledge had a point, and most certainly when applied to governments. 

He said: ‘By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing … kill yourself. Seriously though, if you are, do. Aaah, no, really. There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers. Okay – kill yourself.’

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John Drewry
John Drewry
John Drewry has a background in marketing, owning and chairing an advertising agency for many years. He also holds an Equity card as a stage director and actor, and is Patron & Presenter for the Nursing Memorial Appeal.

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