Why public health initiatives have nothing on Pokémon GO

Pokémon Go is getting people outside and exercising more effectively than any public health initiative in history.

The app has been downloaded 75 million times since it launched two weeks ago and public parks, previously full of wind swept quavers packets and urban tumbleweed, have been overrun by enthusiastic trainers trying to catch ‘em all.

Some number crunching on the Independent revealed the estimated weight loss for Pokémon players, with those catching in the area of 100 Pokémon/24 hours losing a pound every three to four days – the equivalent to five hours of jogging.

Reportedly Pokémon Go is even beneficial to our mental health, with many recounting how it has helped people with depression, anxiety and agoraphobia to venture outside for the first time.

But with all these great health benefits (bar the odd person wandering off a cliff) one point keeps getting repeated. As Larry O’Connor put it: “Pokémon GO got more American kids off the sofa in four days than Michelle Obama’s seven years of haranguing.” So why do million-pound public health initiatives fail to achieve in years what some imaginary animals can do in a week?

An article in The Libertarian Republic last week quoted Adam Smith to highlight how Pokémon GO is the perfect example of why and how the market is better in enacting social change than any government initiative:

“Pokémon Go is not going to solve childhood obesity. It might not even make a significant dent. But it does illustrate how the market is far superior in enacting social change than any government could be. The key is not that the game developer cares so much about the children’s well-being, but that it wants to provide a product for which there would be a demand.
“To quote from economist Adam Smith, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Many do not understand that as society’s desires and values change (healthy living, environmentalism, etc.) the market must find solutions to meet the demand of those values.
“Pokémon Go is an interesting combination of satisfying a demand (that of a new video game), while providing a perceived social good of physical activity. I would bet a good deal of money that most children would take an afternoon outside with this game over Mrs. Obama’s program any day of the week.
“The market creates goods like this all the time, but people often fail to notice. Take for example the USB drive, or even more recently, cloud servers. Environmentalists and the EPA have been fighting for government protection of the planet for decades – and have made little difference. Yet, these free market innovations have done more for their “cause” than government ever has.”

The UK’s biggest public health initiative of recent times, Change4Life, may have beaten its modest launch targets but that translated as just 400,000 people signing up to the site in its debut year, with only 44,833 still engaging with it six months on. When an action is based on ‘ought to’ rather than ‘want to’ it’s never going to be as sustainable.

Pokémon GO has already released information about new upgrades, including Pokémon GO Pro, coming down the line to keep interest fresh. Big government (tax payer) funded campaigns just can’t move that quickly to keep peoples interest and maintain demand.

It’s also worth noting that these public health initiatives are pretty expensive in terms of return on investment. Although originally budgeted in for a whopping £75m over three years, the Change4Life campaign actually only racked up £11m or so a year due to government cuts. But that’s nearly £250 per user at the end of six months, an absurd figure.

If you were going to directly incentivise every overweight and obese adult in the UK (64% of us, scream!) at a rate of £250 then it would cost £10,400,000,000, rather more than the £4.2 billion that obesity is claimed to cost the NHS each year, although of course it doesn’t.

In contrast Pokémon GO makes $1.6 million a day from in app purchases. People are paying to have fun and getting fitter in the process, not paying to have a nurse give them a six-page leaflet on the bleeding obvious.

Of course interest in Pokémon GO will eventually drop off and the furore will die down, but people won’t stop playing mobile games that bring them outside. The technology to bring the virtual into the real world on your mobile is out there, and people will simply move on to newer, shiner and more engaging apps which meet demand.

So while the NHS can tell you to walk 10,000 steps a day, let’s leave it to the market to make you want to.