Doctors and other health workers have been trying to get people to eat less sugar and less starch for several decades but people still eat lots of burgers and chocolates.
Sociologists and law enforcing authorities have been trying to reduce the abuse of women and children at home and the workplace, but immeasurable pain is being caused to women and children all over the world.
Families have been trying very hard to get their loved ones away from alcohol and tobacco, but millions of millilitres of alcohol and millions of sticks of cigarettes are being consumed right now.
Billions of money is being pumped into the health promotion sector of the world. The WHO, governments, NGOs and individuals appear to be committed with a vision of a world with healthier people.
People themselves want to be happier, healthier and productive, and live longer. For some mysterious reason or reasons, nothing seems to work. Everything seems to work the other way; the way of the burger merchants and the chocolatiers, and the alcohol and tobacco industries. WHY?
There are multiple answers. However, let me draw your attention to one.
Have you ever seen an advertisement from a burger merchant giving a list of advantages of consumption of their particular burgers with a full list of ingredients used to make the burgers?
Have you ever seen any similar advertisement for a chocolate?
What about alcohol and tobacco products?
THE ANSWER IS NO.
They always use a different kind of communication. All the burger advertisements are very attractive. They are full of succulent, yummy-looking, colourful burgers with happy, vibrant, energetic, slender young people eating them.
Or they show you moments that are so pleasant and heart-warming, you stop and look at the advertisement for at least a moment. ‘Wow! That’s attractive’ is what they scream to the public.
Appealing to the heart, but not to the brain. The chocolate advertisement does not give you facts, numbers, tables and figures of the specifics of the product or its benefits to the user.
The advertisement fills your heart with powerful emotions completely unrelated to chocolate. They have little or no dealing with your brain.
On the alcohol advertisement you see a sensual, voluptuous woman looking at you in a very inviting manner so subtle, that you are not sure if she is actually smiling or trying to whisper something in your ear. These advertisements are full of strong appeals directed straight at you. They envelope your emotions.
The marketing world has a very powerful, accurate, nimble tool to separate the good from the bad in the vast and complex world of advertising.
From sales figures they can calculate at once which advertisement worked and which did not. They can work out which campaign was successful and which was a flop. All thanks to the feedback mechanism – sales figures.
The marketers, therefore, have become great scientists in this field. They no longer need the theoretical psychologist to predict human behaviour in the market, nor do they need the economist to match the manufacture of the product against the demand. They know what works and what does not. They have learnt this in the real world. Their mistakes have been their best teacher. The advertising industry has reached unprecedented heights in the modern world.
Advertising experts know how to change human behaviour. They know how to make an Eskimo purchase a refrigerator. They even know how to get doctors to prescribe the more expensive medications. And to prescribe medications for people who do not actually need them. Pharmaceutical giants spend billions of dollars to tap into the emotions of the doctors. They know how to do it. They have got the technology.
We must learn this technology from the advertising world. Use the same technology to initiate the behaviour change we need. Only then will the caring doctor, health worker, sociologist and good citizen achieve the targets that have been elusive all this time.
The doctor does not have the luxury of a prompt indicator which tells her which intervention worked and which one did not. She has to wait years to know if the new guideline on management of diabetes was effective in preventing its complications. This is cumbersome, which is the way it is done now.
Thanks to the marketing world, without doing years of cumbersome research, we know that the awesome task of taking the human heart by storm is more likely to be effective than appealing to the human brain.
Metaphorically speaking, of course. We had all this time been talking to the brains of people with facts, figures, lists, numbers, ideas, words and thoughts. How about now paying more attention to emotions, feelings, impulses and motivation?
The neurobiology explains why this is effective. The advertising world knew little about the neurobiology of emotions. They thrived without knowing it, thanks to their magical feedback mechanism, which is a sales figure.
The human brain is full of grey matter, the majority of which is known as the neocortex. This is the evolutionary most advance part of the brain. The brain that comes second has only a fraction of neocortex of the human brain. However buried deep down inside the brain, there are tiny bubbles of grey matter known as the limbic system. This is more prominent in other vertebrates. They are lower in evolutionary terms compared to the human.
The neocortex is our brain. And the limbic system is our heart. Metaphorically speaking again, the neocortex handles our thoughts, maths, reasoning, ideas, words and their abstract meanings.
The limbic system handles our emotions such as fears, lusts, joys, drives and rage related to what is received by the neocortex. The simple, shameful, unbeatable truth is that the limbic system can override the neocortex - almost always. Whenever the limbic activity is powerful, it is almost impossible for neocortex to override limbic system.
The advertisements connect with our limbic system. Emotions are one way that connection is made; perhaps the most powerful way.
Finally the good people in the modern world have started to realise this. We now do try to address emotions. The modern health worker, sociologist and good citizen do make an attempt to talk to the heart as well, and very powerfully too.
That is why we see less of long, boring, unattractive, cluttered advertisements on dengue prevention, or child abuse, or violence against women.
The more attractive, powerful, emotional and sometimes provocative advertisements are, they call us into action. Good people are becoming more effective in their communication.
" Advertising experts know how to change human behaviour. They know how to make an Eskimo purchase a refrigerator. They even know how to get doctors to prescribe the more expensive medications. And to prescribe medications for people who do not actually need them "
That is why we see obese, unhealthy, gross men and women holding burgers and colas and warning us about what happened to them.
That is why we see a growing trend in the world, in enforcement of the use of large, graphic, gruesome images of the actual health effects of tobacco smoking on packaging of tobacco products. This would reverse the attempts of the tobacco industry of targeting the hearts of children and youth. Sri Lanka should not be left behind in this exciting and effective trend to save our future generation.
We, the families, doctors, sociologists, good citizens have come of age.
There is no going back now. We have learnt to beat them at their own game using their own technology. We are going to win.