A few weeks ago I found myself watching an advert for Nespresso coffee. The advert drew my attention, not to the wonders of coffee, but to a well dressed George Clooney as he poured himself a cup of his favourite Nespresso blend. As he elegantly sipped his coffee, George could not help but overhear two women chatting about something desirable and wonderful. George understandably assumed they were talking about him. Of course, this was not so. They were talking about their love of Nespresso coffee.
This ad caught my attention, not simply because it starred glamorous George, but rather because it was such a great example of something large corporations know only too well…people are persuaded to behave in certain ways because they are emotionally driven, not because they are well informed. Simply put, knowledge gives us choice, but we need emotion to act. Nespresso’s marketing team knows they do not need to tell you about their product in any detail. We rush out to buy our Nespresso machines simply because we are buying into the idea of Nespresso being attractive and luxurious. And what’s more we might bump into a favourite film star when we are picking up our new product…
If only health promotion campaigns embraced the same understanding of motivation. All too frequently well meant attempts to motivate us to better health rely on an abundance of knowledge with little attention to our vital emotional drives. I recently noticed that the staff at my eight year old’s gym class were wearing brightly coloured tops emblazoned with pictures of vegetables and the words ‘five plus two’. The tops may remind us that fruit and vegetables are great for our health; but they do little to tempt us emotionally to fill up on salad. And so it is with much of the health education we deliver in schools and colleges. It is big on information but lacking in positive associations and good feeling.
For example, sugary foods may often look pretty and taste nice, but their real attraction comes from their association to celebrations and good times. Perhaps it is time to replace the carnival cake stall with a sushi bar? Similarly, it does not matter how healthy for you swimming is, if you feel embarrassed in your bathers and swim hat. Let self-conscious teenagers wear comfy clothes to exercise in, so they have a positive emotional experience when participating in sport. Let teenagers learn to dance hip hop as well as learn to play netball. Help early learners to cook healthy snacks rather than cup cakes and Anzac cookies.
It is time that we understood the benefits of encouraging positive emotional trimmings to all that we do to support health in schools.
Behaviours both good and bad, are motivated by positive emotional associations. As such kids smoke because they think it is cool, not because they are uninformed about the danger of smoking. They are more likely to be non-smokers because they want fresh breath and clear skin, rather than because they fear dying of some incurable disease in middle age.
We often complain at the power of advertising in terms of its ability to motivate young people to indulge in many unwanted behaviours. We hate the persuasiveness of soft drink ads, fast food chain marketing campaigns, the power of the beauty industry. Yet, rather than doggedly attempting to keep young minds away from these unhealthy options, perhaps we can learn from their sophisticated understanding of human motivation?
Budget constraints would probably prevent the ‘five plus two’ campaign employing George Clooney to sell the appeal of vegetables. However, it is possible to engage young people with the idea that healthy eating is not just about physical wellbeing, it is about feeling good and having fun.
Dr Helen Street is an internationally acclaimed presenter, academic and author with a passion for education. Among her many roles, she also chairs The Positive Schools conferences for teachers and school leaders, www.positiveschools.com.au.