Megan McArdle has long been sceptical of those sermonizing government ads, begging us to lay off the smoking/drink-driving/over-eating/…
Government coercion has also proven somewhat effective – cigarette taxation and anti-smoking laws have, as far as I can tell, helped cut into smoking quite a bit. But the middle ground, where they just try to persuade us to change our ways… [has] not made any noticeable dent in the behavior they were trying to change. Now, if there were great misapprehension out there about the downsides of being overweight, the government might make a difference . . . But I don’t think there are a lot of people in America who are under the illusion that being overweight is in any way desireable.
The idea here is that if the government has new information to impart to its citizens, then its campaigns can be effective ( e.g. “From next Monday, we will drive on the other side of the road.”) . But if the government is just moaning (”Thing X, which you already know is bad for you, is, like, reeeaaallly bad for you…”), then its efforts are doomed to failure. Possibly laughable failure – see e.g. Boing Boing’s fabulous compendium of British Public Service Ads.
If Megan is right (and I tend to think she is), then governments are pouring millions of pounds down the toilet every year. Is there anyone left in the UK who doesn’t know that smoking causes cancer? That won’t stop them telling us again. And again.
That said, there’s at least one area where preachy government ads may (may) have made a difference, at least in the UK: drink driving. It has become far, far less socially acceptable to drink and drive in the past twenty years. Even the young and carefree (/moronic) have become more conscientious about it – more conscientious than their parents, in many cases.
I remember working in a restaurant (I was a waiter long before I was an economist) with some otherwise lovely South African staff, some of whom thought drink driving was actually kinda fun. Enjoying a beer after work, the British staff would smile politely through tales of ‘hilarious’ drunken derring-do on the roads of Jo’burg – but with that rictus grin commonly seen at family get-togethers (let’s call it the ‘Oh god, Gran’s about to say something racist’ grimace).
So did the government ads really manage to affect our behaviour?
Or was it a cultural change which would have occurred anyway?
Or should we update John Stuart Mill ‘On Liberty’…?
The only purpose for which adverts can be rightfully screened by governments towards any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.