Wednesday 31 March 2010

The Righteous On The Couch

The Telegraph yesterday revisited the topic of government advertising.

The Government has become the biggest spender on advertising in the country for the first time, new figures have disclosed.
As regular visitors to this brazenly hedonistic corner of the blogosphere will remember, Labour's dirty tryst with the advertising industry is monitored regularly here.

Still, the latest Telegraph report gives another chance for the Central Office of Information (COI), the quango entrusted with splashing advertising cash, to trundle out their standard self-aggrandising defence.

A COI spokesman said: "Government campaigns help save lives and money. During the past year there were important campaigns tackling issues such as obesity and climate change."
This is a slight deviation from their chosen justification in January.

Labour argues that the COI’s role is to promote important campaigns such as anti-smoking, obesity and in the past year swine flu.
Now, in what is fast becoming a bit of a Puddlecote catchphrase, I'd venture to suggest that a lot of what is being 'promoted' is none of the government's fucking business, but let's put that aside for now.

Reason being that, as the British Psychological Society pointed out this week, the COI's claims that their campaigns are incontestably beneficial are rather optimistic. Particularly when it comes to methods aimed at scaring the living crap out of us in order to influence behaviour.

A new study makes the surprising finding that for a portion of the population, scare tactics can back-fire, actually undermining a message's efficacy.

The report referred to a study showing links between caffeine consumption and a fictional gastro-intestinal disease 'Xyelinenteritis'. One version was extra-scary, highlighting a link between Xyelinenteritis and cancer and saying that the participant's age group was particularly vulnerable. The other version was lower-key and lacked these two details. Both versions of the article concluded by recommending that readers reduce their caffeine consumption.

The key finding is that participants who scored high on cognitive avoidance actually rated the threat from Xyelinenteritis as less severe after reading the scary version of the report compared with the low-key version. Moreover, after reading the scary version, they were less impressed by the advice to reduce caffeine consumption and less likely to say that they planned to reduce their caffeine intake.
Cognitive avoidance is the mindset that downplays personal risk by dismissing it, or rating it as less threatening than generally perceived. It's the opposite of the positive self-delusion required by national lottery players. One thinks 'it could be me', the other believes it 'probably won't be me'.

On the other hand, highly cognitive avoidant participants were more responsive to the low-key report than were the low cognitive avoidant participants. In other words, for people who are cognitively avoidant, scary health messages can actually back-fire.
It's an interesting conclusion, and one which is surely doubly true when applied to government's hectoring on lifestyle issues.

Those who enjoy tobacco, alcohol, or unapproved foods are, by their very nature, risk takers. We are well aware of the health dangers as they have always been vigorously highlighted by UK administrations. They are now, of course, impossible to avoid since Labour embarked on their programme of game theory-led eugenics.

For risk takers, cognitive avoidance is hard-wired into our DNA.

The treasury is very well aware of this fact as their extortionate ramping up of sin taxes, budget after budget, proves quite conclusively **. They know full well that such products have a high inelasticity of demand, so they can vehemently tax away without the threat of drastically reduced receipts.

Yet the Department of Health, particularly, continually resorts to ever more hysterical hyperbole in their vain attempt to scare and bully people who have seen all the scares and bullying before ... and resisted all of it.

Considering that recent campaigns have warned of premature death for kids who eat a cake, a glass of wine killing women, and smokers being speared with fish hooks or the quite laughable murdering others at a wedding, one must question their state of mind, their grip on reality, or even their sanity.

Perhaps the British Psychological Society could get a few of the hideous lunatics at the DoH on the couch and work out exactly why they persist in spending truckloads of our money on campaigns which could only be dreamt up by a psychopath, and which their public sector colleagues in the treasury know to be, at best useless and, at worst counter-productive.

Straitjackets all round, I reckon.

** And for future budgets, sin taxes on sugar, fizzy drinks and (I kid you not) fruit juice.


CiaranG said...

Sorry, what? I see virtually no advertising (I just pay for most of it out of my taxes apparently) - is that a real advert? Young child with small cake -> PREMATURE DEATH!!!!

These people are completely and utterly insane, and if premature death means not having to share the same planet with them any more, I'm tempted to say bring it on.

bayard said...

Ciaran: Have budget, will spend. Since the object of the exercise is to prop up the advertising and meeja industries, where the Right Sort of People (TM) work, it matters little what the advertisements say. I prefer to believe the agencies have a (morbid) sense of humour.

Joe Public said...

But with the promised "Death Tax" & the Treasury's deficit, next week's adverts will about the alluring tastiness of Mr Kipling's products

Oldrightie said...

I suggest Snot Picker will delay the election until June. He trumps us all and keeps the benefit of the Government machine and our credit to max out even more. Brits are becoming the laughing stock of the world. We do NOTHING. Not even football!

BTS said...

We're not too bad at cricket and.. um.. that game that you play with a bat and ball and some stumps.. err..

Letters From A Tory said...

I suppose these stories make everyone realise how easy it is to cut government spending without cutting frontline jobs.

scorpy66 said...

Psychologists have been studying this for decades, e.g. Janis & Feshbach (1953) found strong, moderate and minimal fear messages changed oral hygiene behaviour by 8%, 27% and 36% respectively - an inverse relationship! Either the government is routinely ignoring the science, or likes to spend our money on frightening us for some other reason. Ignorant or malignant? I don't fancy either, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Just got a Facebook message from taxidaggy (the taxi driver that was fined for smoking in his cab) saying that a smoke bomb has been set off in Paliament by a smoking-ban protester and that Police then travelled 300 miles to see if he was involved. No news as yet so not sure if it's an April Fool or not (God, I hate April Fool's Day, especially now that the normal news is so preposterous) but maybe worth keeping an eye on.

Dick Puddlecote said...

LFAT: They highlight potential cuts brilliantly, don't they? Let's hope that a change of government (if that is to be the case) grasps the nettle.

Scorpy: Thanks for the info on that other study, it's one I wasn't aware of.

Fredrik Eich said...

OT Pubs Minister wants a license to destroy pubs.

Fredrik Eich said...

Let's hope it's an Aprils fool but nowadays (!?!)

Anonymous said...

As long as it's only a smoke bomb it's a good show.
Might make them think.
No sorry Fink.
As in their all Finks.

Uncle Marvo said...

Straightjackets 'R' us.

I looked at that poster and it has done nothing but hardened my resolve to buy my kids a nice cream cake each as an Easter treat.


I thank the Lord on this Holy weekend that my parents weren't the kind of muppets that these meddling do-gooders clearly are.

And I'm having chips for lunch. Because I can. And I'm having a fag afterwards, and plenty of coffee, and tonight I will go to the pub and drink myself stupid on Stowford Press, and eat pork scratchings.

My father told me once that if you give up drink, smokes, women and fun you won't live any longer. But it will seem like forever.

He's 80. He didn't give it up.