Category Archives: Health

all things morbid and mortal

CSPI Drops Their Persuasion Pants and Insults the Great Chinese People

Today the good people at Center for Science in the Public Interest offer us Chinese Food (Part Deux). If you pay close attention to news or else live in the food wars of postmodern nutrition, you’ll recall Part Une from 1993 when CSPI captured headlines with its first expose on Chinese food. If you missed that headline: FAT!!! The CSPI message caused quite a stir back then in 1993 when we were still naïve about the dangers of food and thought that eating was a risk-free activity. Now, thanks to the good folks at CSPI and their brothers and sisters, we know that food is bad for you in virtually all forms and that if you eat, you will surely die. Unless you subscribe to the Nutrition Action Newsletter (now only $10 a year) in which case you will still surely die, just more slowly.

Part Deux rediscovers what CSPI discovered with Part Une in 1993: FAT!!! However, like the good persuasion agents they aspire to be, they know you can’t simply say the same thing over and over again, so they pushed their crime scene investigation tactics harder to discover: SALT!!! And, what’s even trickier about those Chinese food folks is that they hide that FAT and SALT in the VEGETABLES, thus hitting the Trifecta of Perfect Sin in postmodern nutrition. Vegans around the world are reeling. FAT and SALT in their beloved Chinese VEGETABLES?!? Add a zest of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, bake in the oven of Global Warming, and you’ve got the Perfect Storm. Why do you even get out of bed?

CSPI ain’t what it used to be and it’s curious to ask why. When they first made the scene in the early 1990s, they could dominate the mediascape like the Rolling Stones, Apple Computer, or Nike. And this was way back in the day before cell phones, Internet, and cable TV. Right? Just 3 TV channels and the elite print media that you could count on fingers. Today any fool can capture somebody’s attention through YouTube, but 15 years ago you had to be Mick Jagger to jump on the top of the heap. And CSPI did it with its fabulous PR tricks on restaurant food. And movie theater popcorn. And Italian food – remember the heart attack on a plate, fettucini Alfredo? Boy, those were the days. And, weren’t those guys at CSPI all that? And now . . . nothing but second acts and all the postmodern hipsters still quote Fitzgerald from the 1920s on that: There are no second acts in American life.

What happened?

First, realize that we are talking persuasion here. Yeah, there’s all that eat and you will surely die scripture, but the text is meaningless without persuasion because if you declare truth in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it . . . the spotted owls will not nest. Stated more directly and sincerely – CSPI cannot do good without persuasion despite its good intentions, good science, and good donors.

Second, realize that we are talking about a group that once could dominate the media agenda in a most charming fashion. CSPI invented postmodern nutrition advocacy. In the 1990s you couldn’t swing a handful of overcooked pasta without hitting a CSPI warning piped directly through the mainstream media and now they are just another fish swimming in the sea. If CSPI really is a center for science and if science is irrresistible, then food science is a killer persuasion app. Just do some flashy PR to generate Reception in the Standard Model, and the rest is the science of falling off a log as persuasion gravity pulls everyone to the ground once the CSPI PR has gotten you on the top of the ladder. Without them, we’re all pining away for the day of their mentor, Ralph Nader, and unsafe at any speed headlines and spotlights, although after that little incident in 2000 maybe it’s best to leave Mr. Nader out of the picture.

Third, realize that the science of nutrition in no way supports or even needs the PR politics of postmodern nutrition. The Western World has known since Genesis that if you eat, you will surely die, and, as a Big Message, science really doesn’t have much to add to that except technical terminology, bar charts, and an insatiable demand for public funding. Seriously, name the new, Holy Cow! I Had No Idea, contributions of nutrition research beyond the standard Leave It To Beaver advice from mom about eating? Stated another way, if postmodern nutrition did not exist, how would the world be worse?

All together then, realize that groups like CSPI are exemplars par excellence of applied persuasion and can be understood, analyzed, and evaluated from that light. Let us begin.

Let’s start with a weaker argument: Consider the title of their Part Deux effort on Chinese food: “Wok Carefully.”

How clever. When doing research on Chinese food, let’s mock Chinese pronunciation of English words with an ironic title. Why don’t they work in images of bound feet, top knots, and opium dens? CSPI has always tried to lead the PC curve and here they are defaming a nationality, a racial and ethnic group, and an ancient tradition of cooking. Can you imagine the PR folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association coming out with something like, “Wok Carefully?” Okay, since CSPI has good PC credentials, this one will slide under the radar, but it is still bad persuasion to mock nationalities and peoples and even if no one in the chattering classes (except, gulp, me) is pointing this out, believe me, it is still having a negative psychological effect. And worse still, it is a bomb waiting to explode. Think about some anti-CSPI zealot showing up at an event with someone dressed like a Hollywood stereotyped coolie carrying a sign, “Wok Carefully.”

Now, consider a stronger argument: The political environment of the early 1990s. CSPI scored its greatest successes with a Democratic Congress and White House. Please keep your shirt on and think about this. As one of the Rules state, “Great persuaders don’t need rich uncles, kindness from strangers, or third party vote splitters.” CSPI was supposed to be a great persuader in part because they had both science and great skill. If you’ve got these qualities it doesn’t matter who’s President or who controls Congress. You’ve got the Truth, baby, and the Moves to present it. And in 1993, CSPI looked like it had the Truth and the Moves. Except, that as the political winds changed, so did the impact of CSPI. This is not possible if you are a Great Persuader especially when armed with the Truth of postmodern nutrition science.

Finally, consider the “science” in all of this. No one argues about the science of gravity and its implications when standing on the top of a tall, rickety ladder. If you doubt gravity, please jump at your pleasure to prove your pudding. Right now, a lot of people are claiming they understand “gravity” (e.g. nutrition science, human-caused global climate change, diets that save everyone’s life, and we can’t forget: HRT for menopausal women), but when they jump off the ladder no one falls, because there is no gravity and there is no science . . . just advocacy and sincere persuasion efforts.

I’ll leave you with a homework lesson. You’ll need to collect data on this and analyze it. There’ll be a lotta math and maybe some science, too.

The hypothesis you’ll test: CSPI helped create the obesity epidemic in America.

Look at the population statistics on American weight status. Before CSPI hit the big time in the early 1990s Americans were maintaining a largely healthy weight status (typically measured with BMI which you can read all about). After CSPI finds the media spotlight and vaults into Congressional hearings and markups, then American waistlines expand dramatically. Think about that. Before CSPI’s media magic, BMIs are good. After CSPI, America gets real fat. I’m hypothesizing perhaps for the First Time in Modern History that an advocacy organization made things worse for its advocacy and that life would have been better (leaner and gentler) without the advocacy. Advocacy that both invents problems and offers failed solutions to problems that would have never occurred without the advocacy! Sounds like AARP, doesn’t it?

If you eat, you will surely die.

Science, Persuasion, and Big Business

While there is much to persuasion that is art, the basic principles possess a compelling feature: science supports them. We know what we know about the Elaboration Likelihood Model or CLARCCS cues or Dissonance Theory or Classical Conditioning is based upon a wide variety of experimental studies that systematically manipulate and control persuasion variables, then quantitatively assess their impact. The Persuasion Guide chapter on Prove It! very, very briefly outlines the scientific approach to persuasion and recommends those scientific procedures as tests everyone should use when assessing any persuasion claim. I also recommend science even with its limitations as an excellent foundation for understanding the world.

This argument gets a lot of support in academic and research circles, but in the real world most people most of the time don’t have time for science and tend to go with a Darwinian approach (if I survive doing this it must be okay). I think a lot of businesses tend to operate that way. So what?

Well, today we get yet another news story about a suffering pharma that has to make huge jobs cuts to survive. Pfizer is cutting 10,000 jobs including over 2,000 sales representatives. Pharmas are often held to be prototypes of hardnosed persuasion agents who use whatever tactic that works to achieve success. They aggressively advertise and market information direct to consumers that drives people to demand pills from physicians. So why are these guys cutting 10% of their overall workforce? Have their persuasion tactics finally caught with them as consumers and physicians rise in angry protest?

Nah. They lost their patents. And they haven’t got new drugs in the anywhere in the pipeline that they can patent.

Business is easy when you’ve got the market cornered. And when you lose the corner, then all that’s left is your skill. And, I’d argue that pharmas in particular have fallen victim to several of the Rules.

Power corrupts persuasion.

Patents are “power” and when you’ve got power you don’t really need to be persuasive. When the patents expire, your power expires, and then all that remains is skill.

Great persuaders don’t need rich uncles, kindness from strangers, or third party vote splitters.

The vaunted persuasion reputation of the pharmas has to be adjusted here because it is apparent that pharma depend upon the action of a third variable to make it happen.

This is a complicated post, so let’s clarify and recap.

First, I am not gloating over the economic challenges facing Pfizer or any pharma. This is awful news. At one level it is the “creative destruction” of capitalism, but at another it is serious pain and suffering for thousands of families. Second, the “vaunted” reputation of pharmas is not solely of their own creation. I think many people in media and in the health and medicine communities have wildly exaggerated the operation of pharmas in much the same way people villianize big oil. Advocacy groups have made pharmas appear to be manipulative, deceitful, and conniving. Given these terrible economic problems of pharmas, not just with Pfizer, it’s hard to believe the evil stereotype of those big, bad drug guys when their stock prices are dropping and they’re laying off employees by the thousands.

That said, I still can point of this story as both an illustration of a scientific approach to understanding things and as an illustration of the Rules. Pharmas have taken a Darwinian approach to their sales approach and as long as they were surviving, everything was hunky-dory. Now, the sky is falling and in a very predictable way and one that a more scientific approach could foresee, forestall, and perhaps prevent. Further, that Darwinian approach blinded them to the Rules and has left them in a weakened position.

I’d expect that pharmas will now take science and persuasion considerably more seriously. Without patents, they’ll have to make money the old fashioned way.

Thanks to “Thank You for Smoking”

If you want to see an outstanding demonstration of the difference between persuasion and advocacy/activism/truthtelling, see the movie, “Thank You for Smoking.” Jason Reitman’s screenplay (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley) deftly illustrates the classic principles of persuasion in the main character, Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry through contrast with virtually all the “good guy” characters, like the Senator from Vermont and various advocates in the health community.

Realize that the movie does not instruct in persuasion principles, but rather as all good movies do, simply shows those principles in action through the words and deeds of Nick Naylor, big tobacco mouthpiece. Thus, you have to think while you watch the movie and look for the tactic because no one is going to tell you when it happens.

An excellent illustration of this occurs in a scene where Nick takes a shiny aluminum briefcase stuffed with stacks of $100 bills (just like a drug purchase in a gritty movie about cocaine) to the farm of Loren Lutch, the “Marlboro Man,” who is dying, ironically, of lung cancer. The Marlboro Man, well performed by Sam Elliott, has gone public with the vast hypocrisy of his own life since it was his image on billboards and commercials selling death and now he’s dying from the product he sold with his rugged cowboy masculinity. To silence him, Big Tobacco has dispatched Nick with the money. When Lutch spots Nick with the shiny briefcase, he immediately knows it’s a payoff and he’s angry about it. Lutch is sincere about his anger and his first response is to reject the obvious blood money.

But then, Nick persuades. He tells Lutch that he should take all of it, then call a press conference. Nick then shows Lutch how to run a press conference that will absolutely kill the tobacco industry, offering the words and deeds Lutch should use for maximum effect. In brillant form, Nick shows Lutch how to artfully pour the stacks of bills out of the shiny briefcase in a cascade of shameful guilt. Lutch stands in slack jawed wonder at the power of this demonstration and the realization that his enemy, Nick, is showing him how to do this. Then, Nick hits him with the killer close. ” . . . and you announce that you are taking all of this money, all of it, every dirty dollar, to create a new foundation aimed at smoking prevention.”

Lutch ponders this a moment then asks, “All of it? I’m dying. What about my family? Can’t I keep half of it?” Nick wanly shakes his head and Lutch realizes that he can only refuse the money (leaving his family in a tough situation) or take it and remain silent (helping his family, but corrupting his outrage).

I won’t give up the outcome here – it’s a good movie worth watching.

The point, however, remains. Nick takes a moment of genuine and deeply felt outrage and finds the means of persuasion to convince an angry man to think differently. Throughout the movie, the Nick character demonstrates that in a truly free and open society where we operate in the marketplace of ideas, the person who can persuade is the more effective agent than those who think they are armed with morality, truth, or outrage.

Remember the Rules, all bad persuasion is sincere. Throughout this movie, sincere people like a Senator and health advocates are shown to be sincerely angry, outraged, and filled to the brim with science and truth, yet they appear foolish, ineffectual, and charmless. You don’t bring a knife to a gun fight and you don’t bring sincerity to a debate.

We employ persuasion under circumstances of uncertainty, doubt, and complexity. We do not employ persuasion when the situation is clear, obvious, and simple. Sincerity has a way of making you think that things are clear when they are uncertain. It does not matter whether the Tobacco Industry is “good” or “evil.” What matters is persuasion. And, I’d ask, which is worse: An evil person who uses persuasion as a means of advancing evil or a good person who cannot use persuasion to stop evil because of sincerity? Why can’t a good person restrain sincerity and use persuasion skillfully?

Science, and Scientists, Dissonance, and Attribution

I’m going to whack the scientific and medical communities in this post, so let’s start with a big point. Science is a lot like Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy. Paraphrasing him, democracy is the worst form of government except compared to every other form of government ever tried. To complete the analogy, science is the worst form of human knowing except for every other form tried. Thus, science is generally a good thing, but it ain’t perfect because it’s still people who are doing it. Thus, while it is a good idea to look for science when possible, you shouldn’t stop thinking simply because some science exists on a topic.

The latest evidence for the combination of science plus skepticism comes from the howling we hear from the medical community about the effects of hormone replacement therapy. Let’s quote a recent news story:

U.S. breast cancer rates plunged an unprecedented 7 percent in 2003, the year after millions of women stopped taking menopause hormones when a study showed the pills raise the risk of tumors.  The startling new analysis, reported Thursday at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, does not prove a link between hormone therapy and breast cancer, but strongly suggests it, many experts said.  “When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it,” statistician Donald Berry of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston said of the drop.”

Sounds like great news, doesn’t it? Picture the scene . . . stunned medical researchers and physicians staring with slack jaws at bar charts showing the greatest single year decline in breast cancer cases ever recorded. Somebody must have discovered the greatest pill since aspirin. Except the decline isn’t caused by people taking a pill but rather from people not taking a pill. Not taking a pill all these slack jawed marvels thought was the greatest pill since aspirin just a few years ago. Turns out all the science they were sure you could find behind HRT didn’t exist. Too bad no one did that science before they prescribed it to millions of women.

That quote about . . . “does not prove a link between hormone therapy and breast cancer, but strongly suggests it . . .” is a bit odd in this context. Looking at some of the strongest scientific evidence anyone can produce in this field, Experts are skeptical about drawing causal links between the decrease in HRT use and the decrease in breast cancer cases. A few years ago when everyone had a pill to push and had considerably less scientific evidence about the potential harms of HRT, nary a peep of scientific skepticism was heard. Everyone just knew without having to do the science that HRT was safe and effective.

If you’re trained as a scientist you can go to Medline, the National Institutes of Health’s online medical library, and do your own key word searches on HRT and discover for yourself just how weak the science at that time was. If you’re not trained as a scientist, one compelling piece of information you can easily confirm with your own physician is to ask if HRT was an “off-label” prescription. Off-label means that the physician is prescribing the pill beyond the scientific evidence for that problem. In other words, the physician didn’t use direct evidence, but rather drew inferences and made assumptions. Thousands of MDs went off-label with HRT and prescribed it knowing that there was no direct scientific evidence for its safety or effectiveness. They just assumed it because of the existing science from other applications. And millions of women took those pills like good little girls without realizing they were participating in one of the largest natural drug tests ever done in the history of medical science.

Quick replay: thousands of medical scientists and physicians use science and conclude that HRT is safe and effective, but then when they go “off-label” and wisely assume that HRT is safe and effective past the basic research, tens of thousands of excess breast cancer cases emerge and then when everyone goes off “off-label” breast cancers case drop in the largest reduction ever seen.  Isn’t “science” supposed to be the royal road to truth? Let’s finish the way we started. Science is the worst form of human knowing except for every other form tried. Clearly, even scientists have trouble always doing science.

It’s also interesting to look at how people are reacting to all of this from a persuasion perspective. Scientists are people too and subject to the same rules as we all are. Scientists freely chose a behavior (recommend HRT for menopausal women) without good science behind that behavior. Then, it turns out that the behavior leads to negative consequences. That is the classic path to dissonance. Now, when dissonance is elicited, people are motivated to get rid of it. How do you get rid of dissonance? Well, the classic path here comes from Attribution Theory. When you freely chose to do something that leads to a negative consequence, you can avoid dissonance with an external attribution. “You know why I did that? I did it because Something Else made me do it.” (For the oldest literate demonstration of this please consult Persuasion in Literature and Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the apple.)

Okay, thousands of women got breast cancer at least prematurely and possibly needlessly because they took pills off label as prescribed by their physicians. There’s got to be a bad guy here and anybody who’s been following American health care can tell you who the first likely suspect will be: the drug companies. Hey, they made the pill. They made the physicians prescribe it. They made billions of dollars in profit. They are the bad guys!!!!

In the interest of full disclosure let me note that I was a paid consultant to one drug company in 2002 while I was a scientific administrator in the CDC. (You can imagine the paperwork that I had to complete to get that clearance.) Over one weekend I met with about 20 other Experts to discuss the problem of medical compliance. Believe it or not, up to 50% of people do not properly take their prescribed medical regimen. This panel was convened by the drug company to come up with new ideas for motivating people to follow all the instructions all the time, especially with drug use. It was a great trip held in San Juan during the winter. I brought Melanie along and she had a great time, so I had a great time, too. Plus, it was interesting working with all these other Experts in a wide variety of fields. The drug company did an excellent job of squeezing ideas out of the best minds they could find and, as these things go, at a fairly cheap price. If they got even one good practical idea out of this gang, it could potentially be worth millions of dollars in sales and profit to them. They did not pay us anywhere near the potential value. I have also been a paid consultant with a variety of medical practice and research groups over the years so I’ve been bought off by that side of the street, too. I’m filled with biases from my past as an academic, government administrator, and consultant. And in the interests of even more disclosure, I have close relationships with women who’ve had breast cancer following HRT. It’s a tangled web. Okay, so it’s disclosed and now you know my hidden agenda in this. Back to the disaster . . .

More HRT use caused more breast cancer. The drug companies made HRT, sold it, and profited from it. So, thinking the way the medical community reasoned years ago about the potential benefit of HRT, it’s obvious the drug companies must be the bad guys here. While writing this post, I did a quick Google search (terms: off label hormone replacement therapy) and found several websites already pointing digital fingers (there’s a cute irony, “digital fingers”). Please check out either this post at the Columbia Journalism Review and another from a blogging physician. Both identify those bad drug company boys and girls as culprits. Yes, I’m wildly overgeneralizing from one case to the whole population (as if CJR speaks for all journalists). I’ll take my chances that my inferences about how journalists and physicians view this and take a big leap with the assumption that they mostly agree: The Pharmas Did It!

Okay. Without any exception, exemption, or excuse, the pharmas own a large slice from the pie of guilt baked up in this disaster. They did promote the pills. Relentlessly. Effectively. Cleverly. They followed the advice from Blake in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” Always Be Closing and that’s what the pharmas did.

But, so did journalists and so did physicians. To hear the CJR try and wash clean the dirty hands of American media here is beyond my ability to restrain laughter during “American Idol.” Journalists in print, radio, and electronic outlets did no, none, zero, zed, zip, nada “investigative reporting” on HRT even though the weak research record was easily available and understandable. Journalists, too, are driven for the bottom line and Always Be Closing is just a standard part of corporate journalism. They didn’t look because it was too easy to just report what they heard and it was too profitable to report what they heard.

And, physicians. The one blog post is hardly representative of the group. I’ve spoken on a personal basis with a few physicians and they will all point to pharmas as a source, but they will never accept any responsibility for their own off-label prescriptions. They will point their fingers at pharmas even though none of those pills could have been taken if the physicians hadn’t written the script for it. And if MDs are so weak of character that the bad boy pharmas can literally and legally make them write script against their better judgment, then what kind of judgment do MDs really possess? Apparently, the kind of judgment that can be bought and sold rather easily. Wouldn’t it be wiser for the AMA to stand up quickly and take this one on the chin. Yep, we were wrong. We didn’t do our due diligence with the science on this one. We’re not sure exactly how much of the blame is ours, but it’s big enough to warrant our acknowledgment. But that declaration would mean a lot of dissonance and dissonance ain’t fun.

There will probably be a train wreck in some American court rooms over this. Pharmas will write a big check, but I don’t think that physicians will escape unharmed financially or reputationally. Journalists will have a great time with this story. They will act indignant with everyone and send out swarms of investigative reporters who will get to the bottom of it all the same way Woodward and Bernstein did with Watergate: They’ll read court documents publicly available and act as if they risked their lives like you see in a Hollywood movie.

And all this is predictable, explainable, and possible through understanding the persuasion concepts of dissonance and attribution. Maybe . . . there’s certainly more going on and not every person involved can be understood this easily or simply. But, the ideas do apply, have merit, and make sense within these limits.

This is a long and complex post, so let’s summarize. Science is great for knowing, but sometimes it fails largely because scientists are people and they fail. And, these failures can be understood through persuasion concepts. Like I saw all this coming, right? Of course, not.

I’d Love to Change the World with Syriana

Can Hollywood change the world? Really. I’m not talking about fashion, style, or trend, but real serious behavior change. Can a movie motivate action? More accurately, can movie producers use movies to motivate action? Let’s consider a recent example.

“Syriana,” the movie, released in 2005 is an excellent Hollywood example to analyze for our question. The plot addresses an issue of continuing political concern, the global politics of oil, and presents an analysis of the problem. “Syriana” determines that unscruplous oilmen, sleazy influence-peddlers, and high level CIA administrators combine to squeeze every drop of oil from Middle East countries while simultaneously seducing Arab princes into a lifestyle of excess to the detriment of the liberalization of their helpless, good-hearted people. These evil American forces prevent Middle Eastern countries from achieving liberal democracy through their greed and ambition. Finally, “Syriana” urges that these evil American forces of greed and ambition cause acts of international terrorism through the recruitment of desperate Muslims trapped in poverty.

Regardless of the creative merits of the movie (see the Internet Movie Data Base or the Movie Review Query Engine for reviews) I want to take its persuasion concepts seriously. The movie clearly identifies the structural factors that drive this enormously important political issue. The three primary factors are oil companies, lobbyists, and CIA administrators and operatives. Syriana argues through movie techniques (rather than Madison Avenue ads or New Yorker profiles, etc.) that if good people would control the actions of these three players, the world would be a better place.

Let’s take the movie at face value and accept the argument. The Three Evil Actors are the main cause of Arab Muslim oppression and distress, significantly and actively retard the deeply desired development of liberal democracy in the Middle East, and serve to pervert the American political system. Now, let’s march on the castle with burning torches and Change Things For The Better “Syriana.”

How we do this must be pretty obvious because the movie itself provides strange guidance on the action step. “We’ve identified the cause, so the solution is easy; just get rid of the causal forces.” Hey, just fire those bad guys at the CIA. Do something about those greedy oilmen. Oh, and ban all lobbyists. And how do you do this?

If you visit the “Syriana” website you will find a link to an action website. Here they boldly offer a series of steps anyone can take to change the world for better.

Hmmm, let’s see . . . how do we reign in that out of control CIA? How about a “Virtual March” on Washington, DC? You and the producers of “Syriana” will rid the CIA of evildoers through email!

Hmmm, let’s see . . . how do we end our addiction to oil (which will hurt the sleazy oilmen in the wallet)? Just download this spiffy PDF which contains fabulous Action Steps you can take all by yourself with no help from “Syriana.” Consider these dazzlingly actions: Weatherize your house! Share car rides! Combine several short car trips into one longer trip! Use energy efficient appliances!

Can “Syriana” be any more lazy and irresponsible? Share a ride. Put weather strips around your windows. This is going to seriously address the serious problem “Syriana” observes?

Let’s do some math on this to evaluate movie’s commitment to influence with responsibility. If you Google around for movie financial information you’ll find it cost about $50 million to create the movie (production and marketing costs). To date (January 1, 2007)”Syriana” has grossed just under $100 million. The movie received awards. It got lots of buzz in the big media sources for its intellectual content. It’s obvious they made some money on this one. And if they spent more than $1,000 putting up their Participate website, I should open a business providing useless, but attractive websites to Hollywood unElectables.

So, the producers pony up $50 million to change the world about oil. That’s a pretty serious number. Except they got all of that back, plus some extra. They will keep that extra amount. Except for the $1,000 they spent on the Participate website with all that groovy information about weatherizing, car pooling, and energy efficient appliances. And that website will help “Syriana” change the world.

What’s even more amazing about this is that it appears that everyone involved is serious about this. I watched a PBS episode (12/21/05) of “Charlie Rose” with several movie critics discussing “Syriana” as if it were a piece of serious political rhetoric. Read some of the comments “Syriana” viewers offer on the website. They believe what they are saying. They are sincere.

When you stop and think about what this movie claims, you realize how lazy these influence agents are. They believe that they can use a popular entertainment to drive people to a website that recycles ideas that have been around since the year after Henry Ford invented the Model T and that this will influence large number of people to modify their own energy use and cause significant change to the operation of a government agency.

Using these influence tactics even George Clooney couldn’t get elected to the school board although they did help him and his investors earn a profit of $50 million for his creative efforts.

Now, of course, it is possible that Clooney et al. are operating on a different persuasion target. Instead of using “Syriana” to change the world, they were using “Syriana” to make people believe they were trying to change the world in the hopes that this perception would generate more sales. Hmmmm.

All bad persuasion is sincere.

The action website reeks of sincerity. Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves and now a year after the release of the movie and the action website, it is obvious that it had no impact on oil policy or prices or the CIA or Middle Eastern princes and pirates.

One of the Rules is: Persuaders can be famous or effective, but not both.

To the extent that Clooney et al. are famous as persuaders, they are ineffective at behavior change (that lame website). To the extent that Clooney et al. are effective as persuaders, they would be infamous for getting rich in such a way.

P.S. You can compare this post to another HI Blog post on good Hollywood persuasion masquerading as bad persuasion.

P.P.S. The “action” website is no longer available even though our energy problems continue.

the Fat Police Fail Again . . . Breaking the Rules

Today we learn that a medical Expert proposes a new solution to the obesity epidemic. According to an article in the “Daily Mail” newspaper:

“Oversize clothes should have obesity helpline numbers sewn on them to try and reduce Britain’s fat crisis, a leading professor said today. And new urban roads should only be built if they have cycle lanes, according to Naveed Sattar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow.”

There’s more . . .

“Prof Sattar also wants ads for slimming services without independent evaluation banned, TV ads for sweets and snacks stopped before 9 pm, higher tax on high fat and high sugar foods and tax breaks for genuine corporate social responsibility.” (You can read the article if you’d like.)

Where to begin?

A point about journalism first. If free speech falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Whether it makes a sound is debatable, but it certainly doesn’t make a profit. The first rule of journalism in any form is to attract the ears and eyes and today journalism clearly believes it can attract ears and eyes with experts, particularly health and safety experts.

Second, let’s realize that obesity is a health risk and that we’ve known about this not just in the past year, decade, or millennium, but since we’ve got recorded time. When you get seriously overweight, you will have health problems. No news here.

And, third, we know that while there are multiple causes of obesity, when there is a sudden and large increase in the percentage of obese people in a society, typically the largest cause is not medical, but rather lifestyle factors. That is, when you find a society that quickly goes from a lot of lean people to a lot of fat people, the cause is not a virus or bacteria or some other new ailment, but rather that the society has figured out a way to generate a lot of cheap, abundant, and safe food for all of its people and people are having trouble controlling their behavior.

Professor Sattar must be an Expert in metabolic medicine. That’s beyond dispute. He’s a professor at a university, he’s got the lab coat, a bar chart, and probably a pill. He knows all about the biochemistry of anabolic and catabolic functions and everything that makes our motors run faster and slower. No news here.

But what has the Professor’s expertise in metabolic medicine got to do with any expertise in the lifestyle problem of obesity? His CV online makes no mention of any training, experience, or skill in behavior change at either the individual or social level. Now, on a fairly common sense basis, if I was trying to create behavior change in people I don’t think I’d say, “hey, find me an Expert in metabolic medicine.” In much the same way if I was suffering from hyperthyroidism, I don’t think I’d say, “hey, find me an expert in Behavior Change.”

Yet, the Professor has no shame in making behavior change recommendations and the “Daily Mail” of Britain has no shame in printing those recommendations. Should we take any of this seriously from a Healthy Influence perspective?

Well, let’s see . . . what kind of behavior change theory supports his recommendations (helpline phone numbers in oversized clothing, higher taxes on various foods, requirements for cycling lanes)? The range of recommendations vary from information (helpline numbers, nutrition labeling) to regulation (taxation, required road building policy).

There’s good evidence and simple common sense to demonstrate that regulation does change behavior. Primary seat belt laws, for example, do create greater compliance and lower mortality and morbidity rates. It’s arguable that regulations in the form of taxes and road building, however, would not do much to change individual behavior because these regulations do not address the primary causes (cheap, tasty, safe, abundant, accessible food) of the problem. It’s also an argument of last resort for an expert to make. (”I can’t persuade these damn fools to keep from hurting themselves, dammit, pass a new law RIGHT NOW!” Gee whiz, any citizen can make this appeal. What’s the point of being an expert if you fall into magical thinking?)

Then what about the more persuasion orientated ideas from the Professor? While there’s again good evidence and good common sense that providing information and education does change behavior, the literature is pretty clear that there is one very serious limitation to the effect: If people already know or think they know about the problem, “new” information is not likely to be seen as new and will be discounted or ignored. In other words, “new” information had better be truly new information and not simply the pedantry of an untrained and ignorant expert. It’s hard to imagine that anyone in Britain or the Western World is uninformed about the link between overeating and obesity. Information ain’t the Special Sauce here.

I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity of Professor Sattar. He believes what he says and he says what he believes. And while this is true, no one should doubt that his sincerity can do no good for the problem he seeks to solve. Further, I’d argue that experts like Sattar make the problem worse. His bad persuasion attempts only serve to reinforce the existing beliefs and attitudes of the people he’d like to change. His recommendations are likely perceived as weak attacks that people can easily overcome. Thus, Sattar is running a bad inoculation experiment that does make existing attitudes and beliefs stronger, but the problem is that he wanted to change those attitudes and beliefs. Instead of taking one small step toward success, experts like Sattar make a giant leap into failure.

Remember the Rules!

If you can’t succeed, don’t try.

All bad persuasion is sincere.

It’s about the other guy, stupid.