Those who herd the masses have every reason to want to know everything they can about their livestock – the citizenry.
Supermarkets may be asked to use loyalty card data to offer tailored advice to their customers on improving their diets and lifestyle, under plans being considered by the Government.
A Whitehall unit set up to find discreet ways to change behaviour has begun talks with supermarkets over using their vast databases to help improve the nation’s heath.
The head of the Behavioural Insights Team said that supermarkets had more information about their customers than doctors did and that this information should be harnessed. Shoppers buying large amounts of fatty foods, alcohol and unhealthy products could be quickly identified and offered advice on changing their diet. Parents buying what appears to be an unbalanced diet for their children may also be targeted.
David Halpern, the head of the Cabinet Office team known as the “nudge unit”, said: “If you go and buy your stuff regularly, they [the supermarkets] know exactly what you are buying.”
It is understood that supermarkets will be encouraged to offer advice to their customers but Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, has ruled out any Government involvement in the programme. Ministers are thought to be wary of “big brother” accusations and have no wish to study people’s shopping bills.
David Cameron is a leading advocate within the Government of “nudge” theories, which encourage people to change their behaviour in more subtle ways than being told to by the Government.
Richard Thaler, the Chicago-based academic who is credited with developing the theory, visited London earlier this month to meet Mr Cameron, George Osborne, the Chancellor, and other ministers. He advised them that companies and the data they hold could play an important role in changing people’s behaviour.
The Prime Minister has previously advocated a scheme that would allow people to compare their energy bills with those of their neighbours to establish whether they were using gas and electricity efficiently.
Other schemes developed by the Cabinet Office unit included writing to doctors who had failed to submit tax returns. Rather than simply ordering them to file their returns, the letter pointed out how honest the medical profession is, and disclosed the high level of tax compliance among doctors.
The “nudge” letters had a 35 per cent response rate, almost 10 times higher than for standard letters.
But other proposals have been rejected, including a scheme to enter people in a lottery to win £100,000 if they file their tax return early.
The future of the Behavioural Insights Team is being reviewed and the plans it develops are considered “off the wall” by some ministers, who favour a return to more traditional policy-making.
Yesterday it was not clear whether supermarkets would want to take part in a national public health initiative. Supermarkets are also wary about being seen to be prying into their customers’ lives.
Previous governments have also shown an interest in using loyalty card data – some of the most detailed information that exists on people’s habits and expenditure – for various projects but their approaches have been rebuffed.
There are more than 25 million loyalty card holders in Britain and Tesco alone has more than 15 million members in its Clubcard scheme.