Sunday, 15 August 2010

Oh, Zoe, The Government Doesn’t ‘Communicate’ With Us…

Zoe Williams greets the news that the Central Office of Information is to suffer job cuts and a slashed-to-the-bone advertising budget with delight, because the right targets are in the firing line:
Ad men will be hard hit since this is not one of those fabled moments when the private sector will grout in the cracks left by the withdrawal of government money. The cracks are more like fissures, for a start.

It's hard to sympathise, given the sense that behind every negative social trend, every inadequacy dressed in Prada, every self-esteem issue smothered in Dove, every niggle of consumerism that makes us all consume so much, there's an adman directing us gaily towards idiocy, then laughing.
Yes, in Zoe’s world, it’s the fault of the ad men that she maxed out her credit card on shiny, shiny 42” HD-TVs and shoes and jewellery and…
Consternation nevertheless surrounds that other question – how, without public information campaigns, does the government communicate with the public?
Ummm, the same way they have done since time immemorial? Public information leaflets, mailshots and now, the internet?
The example that's often given by opponents of the cuts is that of emissions legislation, which businesses wouldn't be familiar with unless they had had ads targeted at them.
Hey, if they need a glossy advert to draw their attention, perhaps that’s merely because its something businesses see no value in? Just a thought…
This kind of communication is relatively cheap. You don't need the brightest minds of a generation to alert people to changes in the law.
If it's on the statute books, and people need to know, it is not expensive to tell them.
The pricey advertising is in the messages that are a bit more nebulous and a little less statutory – campaigns aimed at changing behaviour and/or mindsets.
Aha! Now we get to the meat of the issue.
The obvious areas are public health: smoking and diet now; taking heroin and getting HIV in the past.
Yes, well, clearly it was worth it, because no-one now takes heroin or gets HIV, right?
Diet initiatives, especially the Change4Life campaign, are much more controversial, even though this one looks cute and straightforward, with its multicoloured morph men telling you to eat more sweetcorn.
That’s because they are expensive, hectoring tosh, usually based on bad science, or even on no science.
On a food-swap wheel distributed in GPs' surgeries and children's centres, it told people to swap squash for a smoothie, when smoothies are 57 times more expensive than squash and also much more calorific. What it ultimately looked like was an attempt not to improve national health but to replicate the middle-class diet across the entire population – to say, in other words, that the reason you are obese is that you are insufficiently middle-class.
No, the reason that you are obese is because you stuff your face too often and don’t exercise enough. Class has nothing to do with it…
These are potently reminiscent of the Protect and Survive campaigns of the 70s and 80s – the intention was not to make sure that everybody had a table and four doors to lean across it in the event of a nuclear war, any more than the intention today is to make sure everybody has a ready supply of hummus for better household health. The intention is more of a "Hands up, this is your problem. We are a nuclear state: this is your problem. There is an obesity epidemic: this is also your problem".
And in what way is that NOT true, Zoe?
In time, I'm sure, it will become obvious that obesity is no more about personal behaviour than is surviving a nuclear attack.

Are the Russians sending over Bears and Bisons loaded with fatty, sugary snacks, then, while the population wait below, mouths agape?

I think not…
It will become obvious, furthermore, that those advertising costs were defrayed with the precise intention of shunting responsibility around and creating some static, some debate, around an issue that would otherwise be chalked up to government failure. So finally, some money well saved.
The only people attempting to ‘chalk it up to government failure’ are the progressives who want government to do more and more, and individuals to do less and less.

The government is only obliged to provide advice. Not to ensure we take it.


Jiks said...

"In time, I'm sure, it will become obvious that obesity is no more about personal behaviour than is surviving a nuclear attack."

Is she saying that the lardy down the street eating pies is making me fat? I'm confused...

JuliaM said...

"Is she saying that the lardy down the street eating pies is making me fat? "

Welcome to the age of No Personal Responsibility. For anything...