It's the corporate nanny we have to fear
28 April 2014
Responsible adults should be left alone to make their own choices: so goes the customary argument against the nanny state. However, that ignores a very large elephant sharing the room with state and citizens - corporations.
Corporate efforts to influence our choices dwarf anything even the most ambitious government health expert can dream of. The Department of Health and Ageing spent $51.9 million on advertising and related expenses in 2010-11. That budget, spread across everything from smoking to annual flu shots, can be matched by a single company promoting a single class of products. Last year, McDonalds spent $74.1 million on advertising in Australia, according to Nielsen estimates.
Perhaps the difference between the nanny state and the nanny corporation is that the government is trying to change us and corporations are not - corporations are just giving us what we want.
As responsible adults we know what's best for us, so big business is on our side. While it's true that advertising helps people buy the things they want at the best price, it also influences people to want things they would otherwise not want, and choose things they would otherwise not choose. It's no accident that the psychologist primarily responsible for the modern theory of behavioural conditioning, John B Watson, spent a large part of his career as a successful advertising executive.
Head down to your local pub and order a middy to see the corporate nanny in action. The bar staff might tell you that you can only get a middy in "the other bar". Or they might provide the helpful tip that a schooner is almost the same price. You will quickly get the impression that someone would prefer you to have a schooner.
If the nanny state made it hard for you to get a large beer, the benefits of the policy would have to be weighed against the cost to freedom. But when the pub makes it hard for you to get a small beer, freedom is apparently left untouched. Even if the nanny state legislated to ensure you get the option of a small beer, you can bet that someone would denounce this as an assault on freedom. This is just not thinking straight.
There are many proven ways to influence choice. If you want people to donate to a good cause at the same time as paying a bill, adding the information that 80 per cent of people donate has a measurable effect. Labelling a bin as "landfill" rather than "general waste" makes people more likely to use the recycling bin.
When governments do this, it is known as nudging, a gentle kind of nannying. Not everyone approves, because it is a little creepy to think of governments hiring psychologists to manipulate the unconscious parts of our minds. However, corporations are way ahead of government in nudge technology. Charging a little more money for a lot more stuff, as with the schooner of beer, can increase overall consumption.
The impact of a price rise on sales can be moderated by shrinking the packet and keeping the old price. A big serving on a big plate looks small, and a small serving on a small plate looks big - both useful effects when you want to influence what people order.
It's a mistake to assume that only the state is trying to interfere with freedom of choice - corporations are in the same game. This effectively gives us a choice between two nannies, and there is good reason to be suspicious of the corporate nanny. Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders to make as much money as they can, and it is well documented that adding fat, sugar and salt is one of the easiest ways to do that. At least the nanny state has some interest in our wellbeing, even if it is only to keep healthcare costs down. What is more, at least some of the time, the nanny state tries to give us freedom, not take it away.
Contrary to popular opinion, freedom and legislation are not engaged in a zero-sum game, where one can only win if the other loses. A good example is the recent stoush between public health advocates and the Australian food industry over food labelling.
It stretches credulity to believe that the current system is designed to make it easy for me to eat the way I want to eat. I have to take my reading glasses to the supermarket to find out which "percentage of daily recommended intake" corresponds to a "serving size". A simple and informative front-of-pack star rating system was painstakingly negotiated by industry and health experts between 2011 and 2013, at the urging of the federal government. But the Australian Food and Grocery Council, the main industry lobby group, now argues that much more research is needed before any changes can be made, and that the cost of changing labels will be prohibitive.
I won't be able to leave my glasses and calculator at home when I go shopping any time soon.
Government interference in how corporations label and market food is a prime example of the nanny state in action. But nanny is not taking away our freedom, she's giving it back to us. Freedom is being able to live your life the way you want to live it, but you can't do that when you're being kept in the dark about the choices on offer, or nudged in the wrong direction by corporations.
A two-part symposium, Who's Afraid of the Nanny State: Freedom, Regulation and the Public's Health, presented by the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre and Sydney Law School on 28-29 April 2014, will discuss the role and impact of government and corporations on our health and wellbeing.
Professor Paul Griffiths is Associate Academic Director for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney.
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