The speed with which politicians and retailers have leapt on the bandwagon calling for the banning of plastic straws exposes how easy it is to change behaviour – when people can change easily.
I’ve spent years working on health promotion campaigns and health marketing, where we can only dream of that pace of uptake. Our campaigns are by nature incremental, chipping away at the public conscience and improving health step by careful step.
But the backlash against plastic has come dramatically after years of marketing and public relations groundwork. There has been a rapid behaviour change.
I mean, hardly had David Attenborough stopped speaking about the bottles, bags and packaging polluting our oceans on Blue Planet II than it was suddenly Public Enemy No1.
And those straws, we suddenly realised, could not be recycled – they’re evil, I tell you, evil!
Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, swiftly called for a ban. There’s talk of a deposit scheme for glass and plastic bottles and cans which could arguably make a bigger impact. Supermarkets, businesses, restaurants and cafes have already announced their own straw bans.
It’s been a masterful campaign and I wish there was something to learn from it about the nature of behaviour change. But I fear it’s the result of a fad and fads are not something that maintain a healthy lifestyle or improve health long-term.
Hating plastic is “sexy”, for want of a better word, at the moment. Making giving up smoking or quitting cheeseburgers to fight obesity “sexy” is not such an easy sell for a health marketing PR agency.
Just think how easy it is not to have a straw: how many times do you encounter one in a week that you have to say no to? Is it that big a behaviour change?
But smokers are niggled by the cigarette in a pack in their pocket, while those burgers shout to the obese person when they go past the drive-thru.
A straw is only a straw, but a cigarette is a crutch, just as a cheeseburger is a crutch. They are barriers to a healthy lifestyle.
It might look like the sea change about plastic is all to do with straws but plastic was already in our psyche because of years of pressure to recycle. Planet Earth II showed the damage we were doing by not disposing of it properly.
And those nasty plastic straws are an easy fall guy. Voluntarily ditching them is purely symbolic until every juice box comes with a straw made of recyclable paper.
We experience the push-back against what’s good for you with a number of our health marketing and public relations clients.
Take, for example, Frylight, a healthier way to cook using oil.
Think of the number of people who’ve been sold on the idea of the healthy Mediterranean diet. They quite happily glug olive oil into their foods – “Jamie does it so it must be healthy” – not realising the extra calories they are pouring into their meals.
Meanwhile, Frylight is swimming against an oily tide, trying to warn the people of the danger in their pans on their plates and steer them towards a healthy lifestyle. Each year, the message reaches more ears, sales increase and people, hopefully, get a little healthier.
Persistence pays off, in marketing and health promotion terms when it comes to behaviour changes. But sometimes a game-changing breakthrough is needed to sweep aside misinformed attitudes. For plastic, it was an island of packaging in the centre of the Pacific.
If only people could be as easily persuaded to make real changes to their behaviour as they are to make gestures towards the health of the planet, we’d be seeing vast improvements in the quality of our lives and the quality of our environment.
We know a lot about health. To speak to the health marketing experts, call us on 0800 612 9890.