When a nudge is better than a push in PR terms

A growing number of businesses and government bodies are applying “nudge theory” to make their PR, marketing and comms strategies more effective in changing people’s behaviours and consumer choices. Is it time you thought about it too? This article may open your eyes.

David Cameron is an advocate. One of his first acts as Prime Minister was to set up the “Nudge Unit” in The Cabinet Office, more formally known as the Behavioural Insights Team (now a limited company).  Its aim is to help departments understand how they can ”nudge” people into making choices which benefit them as individuals while reducing costly state interventions or legislation. They offer an alternative to traditional state-led interventions which many people resent and resist as “nanny state” interference in their lives.

The unit has claimed some notable successes, such as increasing the number of households installing loft insulation and convincing more people to carry an organ donor card; it claims to have saved the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.

So, what is new and different about the nudge approach?

Its advocates claim it provides a more informed approach to understanding the social, rational and emotional factors which influence decision making. It uses evidence based research to understand people’s “choice architecture” and is grounded in academic studies of behavioural science. It recognises that small and subtle changes in the consumer offer, or the wording used to describe that offer, can have profound effects on people’s behaviour.

However, it’s not without its critics, who argue that legal restrictions – like the ban on smoking indoors in public places and restrictions on tobacco advertising – are vital to get real public health outcomes. Advocates of nudge theory counter this by pointing out that such blunt instruments can be costly and controversial sledgehammers compared to more subtle, refined and effective approaches. They point out that, despite punitive tax and legislation, one in five people are still regular smokers. 

At the heart of this debate is not only whether or not the role of government is to dictate or encourage healthy living decisions, but also which approach works best in practice.

This is where it gets interesting for all marketing and PR practitioners. If it’s an effective enough tool to influence government policy, with a proven track record of achieving results, then surely this should be a part of all our PR arsenals.

Nudge theory and behavioural economics have been used by a diverse range of companies from food retailers to car manufacturers to pizza take-away chains. Shouldn’t you be considering how nudge tactics can help your business or organisation? Could they supplement your traditional PR and marketing activities?


Contact kay.williamson@gravitaspr.co.uk or call 01242 211 000 for a confidential chat with the MD of Gravitas Public Relations.


Nudge theory in practice

Loft insulation

For years, the government had offered financial help to encourage public loft insulation and yet the take up rate was below expectations. The Nudge Unit identified that, in many cases, it was not money that was driving this reluctance, rather the hassle and cost of having to deal with the accumulated clutter they stored in their lofts. Based on that insight, the Unit trialled some new choices: instead of subsidised loft insulation, people were offered subsidised loft clearances on the condition they insulated the loft area afterwards. Despite costing people more, uptake rates tripled. If the insulation was subsidised as well, there was a fivefold increase in uptake.

Sugary snacks

Sugar has been described as the “new tobacco” with calls for tax and legislation to force changes in the nation’s consumption. Nudge theory advocates a different approach, encouraging people to make the “right” choice rather than imposing restrictions or bans. Consumers can be influenced by the simple act of replacing sugary snack products with healthier foods at eye level on supermarket shelves and, as any parent knows, placing confectionary products at tills increases sales due to “pester power”. The major supermarkets  are experts in applying behavioural economics to subtly influence what consumers decide to place in their basket. Instead of nudging consumers towards the unhealthy option why not use those tactics to nudge people towards the healthier alternative?


One of the country’s leading banks used behavioural economics to gain an in-depth understanding of what information their customers needed and how they wanted that information presented. Rather than repeatedly mailing customers at great expense to encourage them to plan their finances, they created an internet based money management tool with charts and graphs which customers found both informative and easy to understand. As a result, customers became more willing to engage with the bank in decisions about how best to manage their financial affairs.

Organ donor cards

Surveys have shown that although 90% of people support the principle of organ donation, only around 30% hold donor cards. As a result, an average of three people a day die because of a donor deficit. The Nudge Unit was tasked with finding out how to increase those numbers. In a wide-scale randomised trial the Unit tested several messages and found that people were most receptive to those which affected them personally and less receptive to traditional “peer pressure” or “shock value” messages. The least successful message was: “Every day thousands of people who see this page decide to register as an organ donor”.  Similarly, the message “Three people die every day because there are not enough organ donors” had limited impact. The message which best connected with potential donors was: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others”. Based on this, it was estimated that more than 100,000 extra people a year would be willing to carry donor cards.