Have you been naughty? Government is here to help

I tell my daughter that Mum knows best. She is still at the age when she still believes me. But being a new age sensible parent, I do not shove my ideas down her throat while autocratically shouting “Coz I said so!”.

Say I need her to stop eating junk food. First I calmly tell her that sure, those donuts are scrumptious, but eating them can make her overweight and unhealthy. To impress on her the addictive nature of junk food, I bring her attention to smokers: they like smoking too, but it will invariably kill them. I point out the junk food ads on TV and tell her that Ronald McDonald might look like a fun guy but he uses his juggling skills for the power of evil by luring kids with candy and then sharing their money with mean cash-hungry executives. When we are out, I flicker my eyes towards an obese person calmly eating their totally-unhealthy-in-my-opinion lunch and mouth to her: “You see? This can happen to you too!” To support my position by referring to the third-party authority, I tell her of the latest scientific study. But because she is only little and needs my help understanding the scientific mumbo-jumbo, I interpret it for her in a simple way, skewing the results in my favour (it’s for her own good). I repeat the above ad nauseum, enlist the help of others, never losing an opportunity to either lecture openly or drop an insidious hint. And finally, I offer her a healthy alternative, a plate of Brussels sprouts. I sing praises to its fresh taste, point out a slim woman eating them at a restaurant, arrange it attractively on the plate and tell her that all scientists know that Brussels sprouts prevent nasty cancer in your gut.

Too much? Fair? At what point did you stop nodding your head and started to feel slightly nauseated? Maybe never, because after all, as parents, we have good intentions and we do know best. Where do you draw the line?

You might be surprised to know that these tactics are used on a daily basis on you. Stereotyping (“fat people are lazy slobs gorging on junk food”), junk science splattered all over the news (“saturated fat clogs your arteries”), thought-terminating clichés (“ensure a balanced diet”) and other classical propaganda techniques, which would make any Soviet apparatchik proud, are used with relish by the media and government agencies. We, as consumers, obediently play the game and accept them as inevitable evil.

Let’s look at the famous MeasureUp campaign, Phase I of the Australian Better Health Initiative, which burst into our lives in October 2008. The campaign was allocated $500 million from 2006-2010. It’s massive success (more on that later) saw the federal government shell out an additional $872.1 million until 2014. Its main objectives were to build “awareness of the link between chronic disease and lifestyle risk factors” and “generate appreciation of the significant benefits of achieving (those) changes”. Noble goals. Here is a video if you need a reminder.

A research study evaluating the campaign’s outcomes was conducted by the Department of Health and Ageing. Let’s see where all this money went. The charts below are from 2 of the evaluation reports which can be found here (scroll down to PDFs). Wave 1 indicates the beginning of the campaign (dec 2008), Waves 2,3,4 represent the later stages.

One of the premises of this campaign (and others like it) is that people are ignorant about nutrition. Some fresh-faced social sciences graduate decided that we clearly need MORE information on what is and isn’t good for us. Have a look at how this theory holds up.

Ahem, looks to me like more than 80% of audience recalls being lectured about health and chronic disease. In this country I can’t enjoy a gossip mag without being told that something on my dinner plate is going to kill me.

The next figure makes it clear that most of us are aware of how much exercise we are expected to do, what our waistlines are supposed to be like and how many cups of greens will keep our well-wishers happy.

  

So far so good.

The big message of the campaign concentrated on waist circumference. Measuring tapes featured prominently in all advertisements, healthy cut-offs for men and women were discussed (and acknowledged by consumers). So what are the outcomes?
Hmmm. Funny but it looks to me like only around 15% of respondents actually measured their waist. In fact, over 40% of people did nothing at all.

I guess, some people are so lazy, we don’t have a chance in hell to change them, right?

According to their own data, over 60% of Australians get sufficient levels of exercise. What is deemed as sufficient? 30 minutes of activity daily. My 2 x 20 minute crossfit workouts, 2 yoga/pilates sessions and 1 HIIT bike ride a week put me in an “insufficient” category.

And finally 72% of respondents eat 1 serving or less of fast food a day.

Did you notice the progress of the campaign from Wave 1 to Wave 4? Any improvement in physical activity? Or reduction in fast food consumption? Or maybe more vegetables? Scroll up and have a look. Let me know if you find anything that is worth over $1 billion dollars in Government funding. The evaluation report notes: “There has been a slight decline in the effectiveness of some aspects of Measure Up’s message communication”. That’s doublespeak for “In spite of being bombarded by our ads on TV, radio, magazines, internet, bus stops and shopping trolleys for two years, consumers seem to have tuned out”.

The campaign was deemed so successful that Phase II was rolled out earlier this year. “Swap It Don’t Stop It” is sure to pick up where its predecessor left off.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” Albert Einstein (attrib.)
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12 thoughts on “Have you been naughty? Government is here to help

  1. Anastasia, is the “Swap it” campaign not the worst thing you have ever seen? I can only imagine how ineffective it will be. Seriously, what is the Government doing?

    Some of my favourites include –

    – Swap butter for low-fat margarine (cause margarine is so healthy)
    – Swap an iced-coffee for a small fruit frappe (cause a fruit frappe has no added sugar)
    – When cooking, swap butter for cooking spray or a poly or mono unsaturated oil

    Arrrrgh!

    • Yes there are many highlights. I like “swap super size for normal size”, obviously regular sized Coke is OK now. I wonder if any of these geniuses will ever realize that the real reason why their message is not working is because it is a WRONG message. But no, they are happy to flog a million dollar horse. And then they have the hide to tell us that we are obviously not following their recommendations.

  2. I’m assuming that the 30 minute exercise per day they are talking about is not taking into consideration intensity

    • It is defined as “moderate activity”. Obviously open to interpretation. I’m pretty sure most people will work out that hanging the washing out doesn’t count. Just another shady grey area.

  3. Fantastic read again… I just love the ‘Swap it’ campaign, What a complete load of bollocks that is… (apologies that’s my British coming out!)

  4. I think you have missed the point. Surely the success of the programme can be measured by how many bureaucrats are employed and how much money is spent. In this regard, it has been an resounding success. It has been so successful in fact, that we can now employ more bureaucrats and spend even more money.
    Remember, these are the same selfless people who brought us the glorious food pyramid. They have vigilantly warned us of the dangers of arteryclogging saturatedfat and extolled the virtues of hearthealthywholegrains. Following the dictates of the Health Industry, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the levels of obesity, diabetes, NAFLD, autoimmune diseases, dementia and prescriptions for statins.
    You almost sound as if you’re not grateful ………………
    Great post.
    Mark

    • Hahaha thank you, Mark, for reminding me that some of my tax dollars have to go to the support of red tape. Poor bureaucrats have to feed their children too.
      I just have an aversion to being told what to do, especially if the advice is wrong. Plus having grown up in Communist Russia, I can see propaganda masquerading as education a mile away.

  5. Nice work here PME.
    Government money being flushed. Publicly funded experts doing nothing more than ensuring their careers are ongoing by advising more of what has not worked. Its amazing that their own data shows that its not working but the outcome is to advise to do ‘more’ of the same…

    Sweden is making a move I hear. Have you heard anything similar?
    My understanding is that they have, or are close to publicly stating that the Cholesterol Hypothesis is dead and they are not only talking about low carb but low carb/high fat.
    Its only going to take one!

    eljaes.

  6. Eljaes, I did hear about the massive change to the diet recommendations in Sweden. Can’t find any official documents (plus I can’t read Swedish :)). Two of the Swedish doctors were particularly vocal: Dr Uffe Ravnskov (www.Ravnskov.nu/cholesterol.htm) and Dr Andreas Eendfeldt (www.dietdoctor.com). Check them out.

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