Dark Nudges and Sludge in Big Alcohol: Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Biases, and Alcohol Industry Corporate Social Responsibility

Mark Petticrew, Nason Maani, Luisa Pettigrew, Harry Rutter, May Ci Van Schalkwyk

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Policy Points Nudges steer people toward certain options but also allow them to go their own way. ?Dark nudges? aim to change consumer behavior against their best interests. ?Sludge? uses cognitive biases to make behavior change more difficult. We have identified dark nudges and sludge in alcohol industry corporate social responsibility (CSR) materials. These undermine the information on alcohol harms that they disseminate, and may normalize or encourage alcohol consumption. Policymakers and practitioners should be aware of how dark nudges and sludge are used by the alcohol industry to promote misinformation about alcohol harms to the public. Context ?Nudges? and other behavioral economic approaches exploit common cognitive biases (systematic errors in thought processes) in order to influence behavior and decision-making. Nudges that encourage the consumption of harmful products (for example, by exploiting gamblers? cognitive biases) have been termed ?dark nudges.? The term ?sludge? has also been used to describe strategies that utilize cognitive biases to make behavior change harder. This study aimed to identify whether dark nudges and sludge are used by alcohol industry (AI)?funded corporate social responsibility (CSR) organizations, and, if so, to determine how they align with existing nudge conceptual frameworks. This information would aid their identification and mitigation by policymakers, researchers, and civil society. Methods We systematically searched websites and materials of AI CSR organizations (e.g., IARD, Drinkaware, Drinkwise, Éduc'alcool); examples were coded by independent raters and categorized for further analysis. Findings Dark nudges appear to be used in AI communications about ?responsible drinking.? The approaches include social norming (telling consumers that ?most people? are drinking) and priming drinkers by offering verbal and pictorial cues to drink, while simultaneously appearing to warn about alcohol harms. Sludge, such as the use of particular fonts, colors, and design layouts, appears to use cognitive biases to make health-related information about the harms of alcohol difficult to access, and enhances exposure to misinformation. Nudge-type mechanisms also underlie AI mixed messages, in particular alternative causation arguments, which propose nonalcohol causes of alcohol harms. Conclusions Alcohol industry CSR bodies use dark nudges and sludge, which utilize consumers? cognitive biases to promote mixed messages about alcohol harms and to undermine scientific evidence. Policymakers, practitioners, and the public need to be aware of how such techniques are used to nudge consumers toward industry misinformation. The revised typology presented in this article may help with the identification and further analysis of dark nudges and sludge.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1290-1328
Number of pages39
JournalMilbank Quarterly
Issue number4
Early online date15 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12475


  • behavioral economics
  • nudge
  • sludge
  • commercial determinants of health
  • public health
  • alcohol


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