Sarah Churchwell: The message is clear. We are all under suspicion

If Britain is a nanny state, it needs to work on its parenting skills

When Alan Johnson called upon us to stop "vilifying" the obese last week, he observed almost in passing that censure doesn't make people change their behaviour. "The healthy eating message has to be delivered more intelligently," the Health Secretary commented. So does this mean that the government will stop vilifying the rest of us, too?

Since moving to Britain, I have been called licence cheat, fare-dodger, and benefit thief – and all when I was just sitting on the Tube, minding my own business. "Get one or get done!" barked a TV Licensing poster. Then the tone changed from thuggish to sinister: "Your town. Your street. Your home. It's all in our database. New technology means it's easier to pay your TV licence – and impossible to hide if you don't." Meanwhile Transport for London has launched a "hard-hitting" campaign with posters of mug shots of middle-class people as fare evaders. The message is clear: we are all under suspicion. So much for the presumption of innocence. Perhaps I need to have a word with my superego, but I cannot read such direct address without feeling accused.

Doubtless the campaigns' designers would explain that as I'm not the target audience, I can ignore the message. But the message is deliberately incriminating everyone: its use of direct address – what the philosopher Louis Althusser calls "interpellation," or hailing – means that all readers are implicated. Despite not being in the target audience, I still got targeted. Instead of snipers pinpointing miscreants, these messages use carpet-bombing. We're all victims of drive-by social marketing.

Britain is one of the leading national proponents of social marketing, advertising campaigns designed to change social behaviour. But in general the Government's message has been coercive, not educative. If Britain is a nanny state, it needs to work on its parenting skills. While launching campaigns to eradicate bullying, the Government has been bullying us all into submission.

In part, such messages indiscriminately address us all because we all are the intended recipients of the message's subtext, which is that the Government is busily chasing criminals. But such blanket accusations seem to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of those sending the message. We're not merely all potential problems in need of state intervention, we are now presumed to already be receiving it.

This must be the explanation for the letter I received from my local council, responding to my request for a council tax rebate after my tenant moved out and I began living alone. They informed me that they would need confirmation of my new living situation from "a landlord, property agent, caretaker, medical practitioner, social worker or similar person." As a property owner who is happily in good physical, mental, and social order, and hasn't required the state's assistance in the last two years, I don't have a "similar person" to a nanny, and thus will apparently be unable to prove that I am entitled to a damn refund.

Focusing so relentlessly on the segment of the population who need intervention has distorted the government's perspective: they've lost sight of the rest of us. You know, the hard-working, law-abiding, financially independent majority. The ones playing by the rules – rules increasingly designed for people who need assistance.

At this point, I start to feel rather American. America goes to the opposite extreme, assuming high-functioning citizens who rarely, if ever, require help. It is because of this assumption, for example, that intelligent well-educated Americans can argue against mandatory national health-care – a group which incidentally includes Barack Obama. America is a country predicated on the idea that we take care of ourselves. This makes us take responsibility, and means that we demand respect and basic courtesy. This is why we tell each other to have a nice day – which I have heard many a Brit describe as an unnerving, bizarre colonial custom, perhaps because their government has grown used to addressing them with a blend of condescension and contempt.

It appears from Alan Johnson's speech, and TFL's new posters of cuddly people voluntarily giving up their seats for each other, that some are finally realising that the "intelligent" way to change behaviour is encouragement, not hectoring.

Most people react badly to coercion, and punishment is a much less effective means of social conditioning than positive reinforcement. Granted, affirmation would make for some unusual social marketing: "You've worked hard, obeyed the law, done what you were supposed to: good for you! You've made us proud! Love, Her Majesty's Government." It might not be the best use of taxpayers' money, but it would make a nice change. In the meantime, I'd settle for a poster telling me to have a nice day.

The writer is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia