What is going wrong for Jamie Oliver?

If you’ve been following Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution project, you saw that things are not going very well for him. The latest publicity stunt, in LA was attended by only 20 parents…

This is such an obviously good cause, in my opinion, that, just like Jamie, I am stunned. Why is he having so much trouble getting through to people? What is going wrong for him? What could he be doing wrong? I feel bad for the people he could be helping but isn’t, and, since he’s so adorable, I feel bad for him, too.

I’ve asked this question on Twitter, and people have come up with interesting answers about fighting the institutional powers, ingrained culture, years of advertising. They all make sense, and I am sure there are way more explanations than I can think of, but here’s my take:

Since Jamie is trying to change a well-ingrained health behavior, maybe theory can help him? Here, I turn to EPPM, a theory that’s been used a lot to change health-related behaviors.

EPPM is a theory that explains when fear appeals work or fail: When they persuade people to engage in the advocated behavior, and when they do not.

First, for fear appeals to work, they have to produce a moderate level of fear – too little, and there’s no motivation to take action; too much, and people freak out and retreat into denial. So, how do you produce a moderate level of fear? That’s a bit more of an art than a science, but one thing is clear: You have to show that the threat (the unhealthy behavior) is relevant to the target audience and is sufficiently severe. In other words, you have to answer the questions:

  • Could this happen to me? –and:
  • If it happens to me, how bad could it be?

So, let’s see how Jamie is doing. One of his preferred strategies is to show people, literally all the junk they’re putting into their (children’s) bodies: a busload of sugar, 2 gallons of lard. In terms of relevance, the message is clear: yes, this happens to me, I’m the one eating all this in my school’s cafeteria. But in terms of severity, there’s a disconnect. OK, so I ingest a busload of sugar… so what? What’s the problem with that? I think it’s possible that Jamie’s strategy is not driving the message all the way home. It is not helping people understand the consequences of eating a busload of sugar. How bad is it? What can happen to me? I’m feeling fine, thank you. Now, show me someone who suffers from health problems because of having eaten too much sugar, and I may begin to think about it. But make the example too scary and I’ll freak out and shut down. Jamie may be assuming his audience has more knowledge about the dangers of poor nutrition than they already do. This could be why his message fails at the severity level.

But let’s assume that Jamie manages to deliver a message that communicates both relevance and severity. That’s still not enough. According to EPPM, two more factors are needed for the message to be persuasive: response-efficacy and self-efficacy.

Response efficacy refers to the belief that the behavior Jamie is advocating is capable of actually solving the problem. Basically, that serving healthier school lunches would solve the scary health problems… but wait, he hasn’t quite established those in the first place, as far as I know.

Self-efficacy refers to the belief that the person is actually capable of practicing the advocated behavior. Here is where I see a double-layer of problems. At the parent level, it is possible that parents do not feel capable of feeding their children healthier food. I don’t know why, but I’d recommend Jamie do some research and find out. Could it be because they are overwhelmed by the amount of new information they need to learn about nutrition? Could it be because they don’t have the time to cook healthy? Could it be because they can’t afford healthy foods? At the school level, school administrators have to feel they are capable of delivering healthy school lunches now and in the long term. I assume these are poorly-paid, overwhelmed people, who all of a sudden have to figure out a whole new system of food purchasing, delivery, storage, and preparation. Not only is it adding work to an already exhausted system, but it is difficult, and probably expensive to sustain in the long-run. Low self-efficacy, on both the part of the parents and school administrators, may explain why Jamie’s message is not getting through.

But wait, there’s more. EPPM predicts that if people perceive a threat (something bad could happen to me – meaning the message communicates both relevance and severity), if either response efficacy or self-efficacy is low, instead of taking action to get rid of the threat (in this case, start eating healthy), they will take action to reduce their fear. This kind of action is counter-productive. It involves freaking out, tuning out, or denying there is a threat in the first place. I think this is happening to Jamie’s audience. Parents may be engaging in fear control processes, trying to manage their fear, instead of managing the threat. This could explain why Jamie seems to be failing to persuade people, why his message is not accepted and people are not engaging in the behavior he advocates.

If it helps you keep track of how EPPM works, here is a diagram that explains it:

This post is from the series For the Love of Theory, meant not only to help adorable Jamie, but also to demonstrate the power of theory and its capacity to make a difference in the world.

But, what other explanations do you have, about what’s going wrong for Jamie?