Persuasion, Not Paternalism, Is the Key to Fighting Obesity


Read the full story by Kirk Kardashian, originally published by Tuck School news.

The American soft-drink companies reacted predictably to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces: with a sassy marketing campaign. “This is about protecting our freedom of choice,” a New York-accented actor declares in a new radio advertisement produced by the industry coalition New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. “No one tells us what neighborhood to live in or what team to root for. So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?”

Professor Punam Keller, a social marketing expert, weighs in on New York City’s proposed soda ban. (photo by Jack Rowell)

In a way, social marketing expert Punam Keller is on their side. “I’m not big on bans,” she says.

Keller, the Charles Henry Jones Third Century Professor of Management at the Tuck School, doesn’t doubt that Bloomberg’s heart is in the right place. After all, more than 50 percent of New York City residents are overweight or obese, something the health commissioner blames in part on the increased size and consumption of sweetened drinks over the last 30 years.

Instead, Keller disagrees with Bloomberg’s method. Years of researching consumer information processing and choice behavior have led Keller to one confident, albeit inconvenient, conclusion: “If you ban something, people want it more,” she explains. A better way to discourage harmful behavior, she has found, is to combine persuasive pricing and labeling with segmented marketing.

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