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Social Marketing

A. Social Marketing: changing the world - for the better

When I saw that title on some social marketing material I was reviewing, it just seemed to say everything about social marketing and its relationship to health promotion -- to me, anyway. For the rest of you, if you are still listening, let me explain.


The main beef about social marketing is that people try to change to complex problems in the real world by using communication alone. Many people think social marketing is the use of mass media, paid to boot, to change individual behaviour -- probably a lifestyle change like daily physical activity. If that were the case, loyal readers of OHPE could dismiss social marketing easily. For a few years running, my colleague Brian Hyndman, author of Health Communication and Community Mobilization: Complementary Strategies for Health Promotion, have debated the pros and cons of social marketing for a Health Promotion course at U of T. My role was to defend social marketing against the usual attacks - sleaze factor, victim blaming, non-participative.

At such times, and many times since, I would say that if you took the definition of social marketing (Kotler S, for instance) to heart, you could create change in the world, because:

- it is really a comprehensive approach, involving planning, implementation and evaluation

- it involves not just promotion/communication/persuasion, but determining appropriate products for the marketplace of ideas that we all share, grappling with costs and benefits as experienced or perceived, and the other Ps in the marketing mix

- products would not just be lifestyle behaviours, but other behaviours such as participation in our civil society (how long can we rely on Dennis Raphael and Mendelssohn Joe to write letters to the editor?)

- in fact, products could be ideas as important as alternative visions of Paying for Canada

- social marketing is NOT a communication strategy per se; social marketing would likely be involved in health communication activities such as media advocacy, consumer health information, and communication campaigns of various sorts (see Maibach and Holtgrave)

- conversely, you can plan, implement, and evaluate the entire range of health communication without using social marketing (i.e., you could use many other approaches such as PRECEDE/PROCEED)

But like health promoters, social marketers are often their own worst enemies -- they have failed to communicate the real potential of social marketing to advance health promotion. So many of the relevant articles, books, conferences, websites feature the popular and problematic notion of social marketing as throwing mass media communication at some pretty tough and entrenched problems.

Bill Smith at the Academy for Educational Development rightly calls this "social advertising". So, while many critics talk about what social marketing has been, I argue for what it could be.


Another colleague, Irv Rootman, frequently expresses a general unease about social marketing. He worries about manipulation, and social marketing being used to promote ideas and practices contrary to health promotion values. This brings to mind a diagram of power relationships which shows the path from Empowerment to Persuasion to Propaganda as a slippery slope. Unless we are very wealthy, we do not buy, but earn our right to advocate and communicate. So where is social marketing's

ethical base? Probably not in the literature. This is why social marketing must serve and be directed by health promotion which has explicit values.

Rather than paraphrasing the debate here, I would suggest two thought provoking articles. Nurit Guttman uses a lot of examples, many of which relate to communication and social marketing, in Ethical Dilemmas in Health Campaigns (see OHPE 26.2). Also, Social Marketing: Its Place in Public Health by Ling et al (see OHPE 26.2) still holds up - a good review of the case for and against social marketing.


My colleague, Ron Labonte, has provided thoughtful commentary on cannibalizing, imperialism, co-option and other forms in which new paradigms, such as health promotion, supplant or are applied to all sorts of other actions (formerly or still known as community development, health education, community economic development, etc). As you all know, he talks real good and makes eloquent sense.

I, too, worry about paradigm slippage, but my take on this is somewhat different. I work as a trainer and facilitator. So I ask -- are there tools and techniques which can be talked about, demonstrated, and practised using a common language, literature, traditions, and networks, in a reasonably deliberate and intentional manner?

There are.

So, if you use them in a deliberate and intentional manner, your work IS social marketing. If you don't, it could have been, it may even look and smell like it, but it is NOT -- it's just other practitioner labelling your practise.


Well, what's the point of this debate and defense of social marketing? We all know we have reached a time where the practise of community health, public health, and health promotion is in a tough marketplace. You can read it on Click4HP, Peter Cole's editorial in HealthBeat, Rifkin's Future of Work, the recent Quality of Life Report, the downloading, and the budget. Can social marketing help?

I believe so and I offer you a new definition:

Social Marketing is the deliberate and intentional use of marketing tools and techniques to plan, implement and evaluate efforts designed to increase support for a wide range of ideas and practises -- changing the world (at the individual, organizational, and collective levels), for the better (acting in alignment with commonly held health promotion values).

If you agree, please see (Resources) section 26.2 of OHPE for a list of various resources related to social marketing.

- submitted by Larry Hershfield, Manager,

The Health Communication Unit, at the Centre for Health Promotion,

University of Toronto, The Banting Institute, 100 College Street,

Room 213, Toronto, ON M5G 1L5,

Tel: 416-978-0522,

Fax: 416-971-2443,