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Behavioural economics to promote healthy behaviour

Earlier this week I attended a Government Communication Network/ Government Procurement Service event on the future of government communications and communications procurement (sounds enthralling, I know!).

Although central government is not generally thought of as being very innovative, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that a number of departments were starting to embrace newer ways of communicating with the general public, including greater engagement with social media channels.

Most interesting in my opinion was the Department of Health’s (DH) engagement with the ideas of behavioural economics and their efforts to integrate these into implementation of their comms strategy for the coming year. Head of Strategy Dan Metcalfe was keen to stress that the DH no longer focuses on improving and testing awareness, as awareness and behavioural change do not necessarily correlate. It also no longer seeks to provide information to people, but rather tangible products that act as more effective triggers to making healthy lifestyle choices. Some examples given were the Quit Kit for smokers and the upcoming Games4Life campaign, which will see the dissemination of potentially millions of personalised activity plans designed to get Brits moving this summer. I’m also very much looking forward to Stoptober now, set to be the ultimate nationwide smoking cessation challenge (although I can’t help thinking they’ve ripped off Movember…).

So what does this means for market researchers? Clearly we’re going to have to dedicate more of our energies towards exploring whether initiatives/ programmes actually change behaviour, instead of just measuring increases in awareness. But further, we have a responsibility to intimately understand people and what actually causes them to break their habits, so that we can make meaningful recommendations. This is relevant across all the work we do, not just in the context of public sector comms. Paradoxically, our industry is currently rife with talk and good intentions regarding behavioural economics, but not a whole lot of action – what will trigger us to change?!

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