Farewell to the COI


The government, among other advertisers, has been using insights from disciplines such as behavioural economics and social psychology to change the public’s behaviour for the better. Launching campaigns such as Change4Life, and with the NHS supporting educational TV programmes such as the Food Hospital, it has started to put the wealth of insight offered by these sciences to good use, and seen some impressive results.

These campaigns have been a great start towards trying to change lifestyles but the government has not fully followed through with their efforts. Amidst all the other budget cuts, the government froze the £540m-a-year COI ad budget (to focus only on ‘essential’ campaigns) until March 2011, followed by a reduction in ad spend by 50% thereafter.  Finally, by the end of the month, the COI will cease to exist as the government has decided to make different departments responsible for their own communications.

The Change4Life campaign initially showed the promise of success. However, since the cuts have been made, there has been a significant drop in the number of visits to the campaign website and to calls requesting information.

This could, as the government is probably aware, be a false economy, and the deterioration of public health can have wide-reaching and costly long-term effects. Ignoring the nation’s unhealthy habits could lead to more government spending on healthcare – potentially undoing the savings made by slashing the communications budget. In addition, an unhealthy society could lead to a less productive workforce – costing the government even more money. Given how effective the Change4Life campaign has been, it would be great to see the government reinvest its time, effort and money to engage with behavioural change communications.

We hope that even with the COI closed down, the government will be able to continue producing creative and effective behavioural change campaigns, like the one below – Kathy Can’t Sleep ad from the late 1980s, promoting safe driving under the slogan ‘drinking and driving wrecks lives’. It depicts a little girl Kathy whose dad got into a fatal accident, leaving the family to deal with the consequences of his actions.

Introducing Two Brains; Thinking, Fast and Slow (by Daniel Kahneman)

Statements such as G.K. Chesterton’s “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star” and Sigmund Freud’s “We obtain our concept of the unconscious, therefore, from the theory of repression” capture the turn-of-the-century belief that what we don’t understand about ourselves is either too complicated to perceive, or so dark, sexual and disturbing that it needs repressing.

However, over time we have started to move onto the less dramatic view (nicely captured in Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’) that we operate with two distinct thinking systems; system 1 is the fast, unconscious, ’automatic’ decision maker – the “secret author” of most of our choices and decisions – and system 2 is the rational, slow-thinking, and conscious decision maker. Currently many people’s everyday perception of themselves is that of system 1, they are rational decision makers who are in control, whereas in reality we often make quick, intuitive decisions and rationalise them afterwards. In fact numerous studies have shown that we instinctively hate to put in the effort that using our rational brains requires, and consequently do so only when absolutely necessary.

The use of this our unconscious and automatic brain is interesting for advertisers. While being quick, intuitive and sensitive to environmental clues, it is often flawed and open to irrational biases and interference effects. It causes a person to change their decisions without their conscious knowledge or understanding, based upon a multitude of non-apparent factors, such as the halo, framing, or anchoring effects – all of which can be created or influenced by advertising, and most of which occur on any particular customer journey. By understanding how our automatic intuitive system works, and marrying up the right fast thinking systematic flaw with the moment in a customer journey, we can begin to understand what type of message, delivered at the right time, will affect the decisions people make. This can only help our brands, and improve our ROI.

Future posts will look at these two thinking systems in more detail, and uncover how advertising can effectively influence each one.