Eat and Do Things That Aren’t Healthy

If you tell people not to do something, they’ll probably do it.

If you say Don’t eat fatty foods, they’ll probably eat more fatty foods than if you kept quiet.

Why? There are many reasons. If I had to identify one to close-in on, I’d say: Guilt.

Guilt. It’s a very interesting emotion. What does guilt do? Well, it makes you feel bad – for doing something you shouldn’t have done. It’s an important social emotion because it helps to ensure that people behave according to society’s rules.

Here’s where guilt gets fascinating: quite often, people continually do the things that make them feel guilty because doing them makes them feel guilty.

And that feeling of guilt enables and gives them permission to partake in the object of their guilt.

If, for instance, you eat fatty high-sodium processed foods when you’re stressed or depressed, you need that sense of guilt. Why? Because the guilt creates the emotional condition which creates the urge to seek the relief that those Doritos provide.

Our Public Health alert system needs a complete re-look.

Rather than focusing on the messages, Public Health needs to focus on human psychology.

Think about it: for decades now, we’ve been bombarded by the same basic messages: Diet! Exercise! Eat your veggies! Don’t eat fatty foods! Don’t pig out! Lose weight!

And in those decades we have seen Obesity, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease and a whole host of psychiatric and other disorders skyrocket.

I’m not at all saying that our public health messages caused these epidemics.

But I am saying that they may have created – or at least aggravated – a culture of guilt. In so doing, a positive feedback loop of guilt-driven behavior may have been energized.

Doctors and nurses and research scientists and public health experts have invested millions of hours and billions of dollars in almost vainly trying to reverse the unhealthy trends of the last thirty years.

Maybe we need to step back and ask ourselves if there’s a more economic – and simpler – approach.

Maybe we need to enframe these problems as Marketing problems.

I don’t mean the kind of marketing that’s droll and passionless and produced in a factory on Madison Avenue.

I mean: the kind of marketing run by smart, well-educated, creative people committed to understanding the human condition and making it better. But wait: doesn’t that already exist? Yes, it does – sort of. We just need to nudge them and say: “Hey, dope: you can make a lot more money if you pay more attention to X versus Y.”

I actually do think that this is a Marketing problem. It stands to reason, then, that our public health problems are Marketing problems.

Way too often marketers are deeply entrenched in the mechanics of messages and only superficially engaged in the organics of human feelings. Marketers need to flip that mix around.

The greatest promise of Social Media isn’t in data or research or messages.

No, the greatest promise of Social Media for marketers is feeling.

X = Messages. Y = Feeling. X * Y = Healthy Behavior (where Y >> X).

A feeling motivates far more strongly than a message. If you meld the two together, you boost the power of motivation.

Feeling precedes language. So when trying to figure out how to market healthy behaviors, spend more effort on figuring out the feeling part of the equation (Y). Then solve for X.

If you create psychological and cultural spaces where people can do the things they enjoy doing, you increase the likelihood that they’ll pay less attention to guilt. Then they will be more receptive to self-insight so that they can live with a sense of balance.

People don’t usually exercise or lose weight because those things are the rational and “healthy” things to do.

They decide to do these things when they feel that it makes them feel better – not because someone else tells them so.

If you tell people to feel bad about what they do, they will. And they’ll keep doing what you told them not to do.

Tell them, instead, to enjoy life. Stop making it so complicated!

Oh, and don’t treat yourself to a silky, sweet, succulent chocolate eclair.


0 Replies to “Eat and Do Things That Aren’t Healthy”

  1. oh, sorry, can you hang on a sec while i clean my fingers of the sticky caramel goo from my morning cinnamon bun. it’s true — appealing to people’s emotions, dreams and desires is a much more positive (and effective) way of supporting and motivating. beyond marketing, i believe comms and services need to teach people how to appeal to their cerebral recognition of their feelings. (i won’t have that cinnamon bun because honestly, it makes me feel like crap for the rest of the day.)


    1. LOL

      Also, since (good) marking & comms folks are creative, focusing on feelings is what they (should) be good at. The messaging part is relatively easy – but that seems to be where most of the effort goes.


  2. Don’t think of a yellow volkswagon.

    Now, what’s the first thing you see? The yellow car. Bang, there it is.

    Messaging is only the tip of the iceberg. Changing behavior and sustaining that change is much greater than marketing. If successful ad campaigns or fund-raising campaigns would solve the issue then I’d expect to see every participant at a LiveStrong Challenge event, for example, as fit as a fiddle. Not always.

    Health is not only social it is a community responsibility. Hopefully my efforts inspire another, and that individual in turn, inspires someone else. We can only hope, because so far, something isn’t working right!

    Think strong:)

    Think fitness, think strong.

  3. Now if I’m being honest, I really want to go out and buy an eclair. The visual is more dominant than the words on the page (at least for a chocoholic).

    I agree with everything you say about the need to appeal to emotions, but those marketing better health practices are not working in a vacuum. For every good message that appeals to people’s emotions to live a healthier life, there are dozens of messages from Pepsi, Coke, MacDonalds, Sony etc. appealing to a baser desire to sit in front of the tv or computer eating junk food. And those advertisers will not stop because their objective is to sell more and more.

    For many people, healthy behavior feels like delayed gratification whereas eating that eclair provides immediate satisfaction (and delayed discomfort). Since the people who really need to alter their behavior may not have any reference for eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, how do you use marketing or social media to make them feel like this would be a good thing? Or is it necessary to make them feel more anxiety and fear about their current behaviors? For instance, show photos of maggots coming out of that eclair? Certainly public service announcements against tobacco, drugs or drunk driving use the negative image approach. And I certainly remember being heavily influenced against smoking when a classmate brought in a cross-section of a blackened lung for show and tell. Do we need to have similar campaigns to fight obesity and lethargy or are you envisioning a more positive appeal being effective? As Jody said, something isn’t working the way we’re approaching the problem now.

    1. I’m a subliminal blogger. 😉

      It’s a very difficult task. And you’re right to raise the point about what we might call “negative” marketing: using stark images of rotted lungs, etc. to shock people into behavior changes.

      What I didn’t mention (because it’s a whole topic unto itself) is the matter of psychological and cultural differences among people. People associate words and feelings differently. So research does matter.

      With smoking, I think social pressure may have had a lot to do with changes – the fact is, a lot of people *still* smoke. The big change was in societal attitudes toward smoking, which had the consequent effect of changing individual behavior.

      Now, negative imagery probably works – but under certain circumstances. For instance: those commercials showing the death of loved ones in car crashes can have a dramatic impact and actually change behavior.

      But for more chronic conditions – especially ones involving emotions like shame or guilt – I doubt that negative appeals work. In fact, they may backfire.

      Certainly, this is a huge issue with no one solution. But we do need a change in our thinking about how to effect behavioral change.

      Thanks, Lisa!


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