Nudge theory makes headlines (again)

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If you receive our monthly newsletter, or keep an eye on the Smoking Gun blog pages, then chances are you won’t have missed our story, Everything you wanted to know about nudge theory. Just in case, though, let’s recap.

Nudge theory is a proven tactic used in everything from advertising to politics, and basically bases itself on one principle- people don’t respond well to demands, and instead prefer suggestion over dictatorial communications. Examples we used in our original piece included the ‘limited time offer’, whereby products are initially sold at a high price, then reduced to a far lower cost, under the tag of being on sale, thus we receive a prompt to purchase then and there.

The Guardian website this morning has published a fascinating piece on the effectiveness of the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which has just revealed the details of 130 controlled trials that have been conducted in the last year alone. Amongst other things, the department is basically a group of experts who are tasked with applying nudge theory in practice, and seeing what happens.

The tests included putting ‘STOP’ signs next to sugary drinks on the shelves of three hospital shops in Liverpool, and redrafting letters sent to speeding drivers in the West Midlands outlining why we have limits in the first place. In the first instance, there was a 7.3% drop in the sales of sugary drinks. In the second, a 20% reduction in reoffending amongst the drivers that received the new form of letter.

Study supporters- usually parents or friends that have volunteered to work with GCSE students to help them with resits- were also sent texts prompting them to ask questions and raise conversation points that promote revision. The result was a 27% better chance of students passing the second shot at the qualifications when their supporter has been on the text list.

BIT has also been rolled out on an international level since 2014, with involvement in Mexico and Australia amongst other territories. The details of these are less important than the overall point, though. Fundamentally speaking, nudge theory has consistently provided compelling evidence that it stands up to scrutiny, which, at a time when traditional advertising is being dealt a series of sucker punches at the hands of an increasingly anti-salesmanship public, should be food for thought for anyone in the business of developing and implementing marketing campaigns.

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