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Why cereal lovers won’t be giving up their two-star Coco-Pops

"That’s the thing about humans, we are pretty consistent."

Coco Pops has received two stars in the voluntary health star rating system, but don’t expect a huge change in buying patterns, at least in the short-term.

Sales may even increase slightly, because it is likely that most people already know that Coco Pops isn’t a health food, and the two stars may well provide current users with tacit permission to keep eating them, because their rating wasn’t as bad as they thought. It may also mean that they go searching for those tiny snippets of evidence that help to justify their current choices.

If we know anything about human behaviour, we know that people will always look for evidence that confirms their current behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and values, before we change our behaviour. Psychologists call it the confirmation bias, and we are all victim to it.

It also means that it takes more than education and information for us to change behaviour that we have been carrying out over a long period of time.

That’s the thing about humans, we are pretty consistent.

This consistency works quite well for us, most of the time, but is also one of the reasons why education campaigns are not always the ‘silver bullet’ that public health campaigners hope for. It is certainly the case as to why there are usually only small movements in behaviour in the short-term, such as we have seen with the plain paper packaging of cigarettes.

But it doesn’t mean that they aren’t working. It just means that, like marketing campaigns to get people to buy commercial products, they take time.

So, if you are currently buying Coco Pops for your kids (or yourself), it is likely you have already made the necessary cerebral contortions to overcome any concerns about the healthiness of the product. You may not be aware that you’ve done the gymnastics, but it is likely that you have – it’s kind of hard not to know that Coco Pops is basically a crunchy lolly.

That said, the fact that Nutri-Grain also received two stars may create some dissonance, because some people may have believed it was a relatively healthy food – they do sponsor the ironman competition, and those ironmen? (and women) look pretty healthy.

So some current users will likely make a couple of adjustments to their thinking – either looking for evidence to allow them to continue to buy and eat Nutri-Grain, or maybe, just maybe, trying something different.

However, if All-Bran had received two stars (it didn’t – it got five stars), there would probably have been a significant shift in behaviour, because those eating that delicious combination of aleurone and pericarp would have been thinking, ‘Why they hell have I been eating this reconstituted? cardboard product,’ or something to that effect.

Extra information about our choices is useful, and even if a small proportion of people stop eating Nutri-Grain, then I guess it is a win for health.

And although I do have realistic view of behavioural change, I am not from the neo-liberal school of ‘just leave people alone to make their own decisions, and if some of them die along the way, well, that’s just the market doing its work’.

There are solutions. But they have to be seen in the context of a long-term outcome for people, rather than instant behavioural change.

But first, we have to accept that there is a problem with health and obesity. Which many people still don’t.

In November, 2011, the International Obesity Taskforce estimated that around 200 million school-aged children were overweight, with between 40 and 50 million being classified as obese. These rates have increased significantly since the mid-1970s, and the evidence suggests that it’s not just because of the internet and lazy kids.

While the rate of increase has stabilised in some countries, the overall pattern is expected to continue, resulting in an estimated 60 million overweight or obese children by 2020.

Coupled with the fact that the worth of the food and beverage industry in 2010 was about US$7 trillion, it becomes clear that changing behaviour is not just the responsibility of the individual.

Of course, there is complexity to this problem, but the basic evidence is clear that we have a problem, so we should use evidence, rather than anecdote or folk psychology, to try to solve the it.

At its most basic level, we have to make it easier, both psychologically and practically, for people to eat healthier, and more difficult for people to eat unhealthily.

We can do this by providing people with information such as the star rating system, along with developing and supporting programs that use modelling behaviour, such as the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation and the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation, to help people see how to make better food choices. Similarly, making fresh food, fruit and vegetables more accessible to vulnerable groups, particularly those on low-incomes, will make it more likely that they will eat them.

But, any marketer will tell you that it isn’t one thing that leads to behavioural change, but a strategic, co-ordinated and consistent approach over the long-term that has outcomes. It has taken brands like McDonald’s and Coke decades to establish their legitimacy. It will be even harder for a fragmented concept such as ‘healthy’ food to challenge such a well-established, and significantly more focused sector.

But please don’t misinterpret me, I am not necessarily advocating banning advertising, or over-regulating the marketplace, I am simply suggesting that we accept the complexity of the problem, and use what we know about human behaviour, from the individual, governmental and industry perspective, to make better decisions for well-being.

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