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Don’t imbibe new anti-Utah beer ads

Ad in Idaho from American Beverage Association.
Ad in Idaho from American Beverage Association.
American Beverage Institute

Utah’s culture of “responsible” imbibing — coupled with the state’s constellation of conservative alcohol laws — creates the kind of “choice architecture” that supports positive social outcomes.

But of course not everyone agrees — especially those in the booze-hawking business.

Earlier this month, the American Beverage Institute launched commercials in a neighboring state that read in part: “Utah: Come for Vacation, Leave on Probation.”

The clever advertisement is meant to take a strong shot (pun intended) at Utah’s latest DUI law, which reduces the state’s legal blood alcohol content level from 0.08 to 0.05.

While lowering the blood alcohol level has evidently raised the blood pressure of beer executives, the move is nonetheless well grounded in science-based recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

But since that’s evidently not enough for some, it’s worth noting that the legislation conforms with the emerging wisdom of behavioral economics.

Scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are widely credited with first introducing popular audiences to the concept of “choice architecture,” the idea that the way choices are presented can actually affect decision-making.

Their best-selling book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” shows how policymakers can use choice architecture to “nudge” individuals toward decisions that align with their own long-term interests as well as the interests of society writ large.

Think of, for example, the beeping sound a car makes when you don’t buckle up. While the incessant beeping may annoy, you’re probably mostly grateful that the car reminds you to buckle up — after all, wearing your seat belt is the wise long-term choice.

Some businesses and advertisers — especially those in the alcohol industry — have known the principles of choice architecture for years and have used them to nudge (and in some instances shove) individuals into making choices against their long-term interests.

Take, for example, the candy bar that just happens to be placed by the checkout aisle at the exact height for your child to see and grab.

Just as you’re trying to rapidly load groceries onto the checkout counter, your toddler starts crying for the chocolaty treat in the shiny wrapper — people behind you are starting to stare and you don’t want to argue in public, so you simply capitulate and buy the sugary mini-monolith.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

Even though you know the chocolate bar is probably not in the long-term interest of your child, you acquiesce largely because of the sophisticated choice architecture set up for you to lose and Nestle to win.

As I’ve noted in previous writings, Nobel Prize-winning economists Robert Shiller and George Akerlof call this kind of choice architecture “phishing.”

Their book, “Phising for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception,” details just how sophisticated big-data marketers have become and just how subtly they wield decision-making power over our, at-times, vulnerable human psyche.

It's no surprise that the alcoholic-beverage industry and winemakers are among the largest cable television advertisers. After all, when one considers the shocking health risks of steady alcohol consumption, there would be few reasons to purchase booze but for the seemingly infinite TV slide show of beautiful beer-guzzlers basking on pristine beaches.

Without billions of dollars worth of these beer ads, some might actually start to get privy to the fact that America’s false elixir offers little long-term benefits. This idea isn’t so novel (see, for example, prohibition). Indeed, without a highly funded commercial “choice architecture” pushing Americans toward alcohol consumption, citizens might actually start saving their booze money for something like, say, retirement or college tuition.

Given the heightened health risks associated with alcohol, Utah is wise to take a keen interest in creating the kind of choice architecture that curbs drunk driving and promotes (pardon the oxymoronic expression) "responsible" consumption.

The alcohol industry is well-known for clever advertisements. The most recent commercial criticizing Utah's DUI law is no exception; but don't be fooled by the phishing — Utah's law is grounded in sound science and coheres with what we know about behavioral economics.

It will help keep our roads safe and nudge drivers toward sobriety behind the wheel.