The Zeitgeist among people and organizations determined to counter the obesity epidemic in the US is to promote various environmental and policy solutions (more walkable spaces, safer neighborhoods, banning soft drinks in vending machines in schools, 'sin taxes' on junk food among them). In an earlier post I talked about "cheating" - an idea that perhaps we move too fast to upstream solutions without giving the market-based solutions - like social marketing - a more thorough chance.
After reading an article about commodity marketing in the NY Times, I'm more convinced that the marketing approach to reducing and preventing the prevalence of childhood obesity needs a second look from these advocates for policy solutions. The article notes:
There are two interesting features of commodity advertising programs: first, they are unreasonably effective, and second, they are unreasonably difficult to maintain.
I can't come up with a public health education program that has ever been described as 'unreasonably effective.' And the problem of sustaining programs is one that many people in health and social change programs have experience dealing with. While there isn't a sure-fire method that sustains all programs all the time, we should be combining our interests and resources rather than proceeding on parallel tracks.
Unfortunately, many people equate social marketing with massive public education campaigns on the scale of a truth or VERB program. In reality, social marketing might take on many different forms and I suggest that developing public-private partnerships with growers and producers of commodity products would make a lot of sense.
For an example, take a look at what the 5 A Day for Better Health Program was doing for fruit and vegetable consumption in the US with a media budget that rarely exceeded a million dollars a year(wonder what it is now?). Yes, the scientific reviewers weren't overwhelmed with the results (primarily because the lack of a control group made it difficult to attribute observed increases in fruit and vegetable consumption solely to the program's impact. Note to agencies: a reason to have social marketers involved in evaluating these programs, not people who write RO1s for a living). But experimental design consideration aside, this did not constrain them from recommending the continuation and expansion of the program - now nestled and lost somewhere in CDC.
Not that this idea won't lead to howls of protest and lists of reasons against it. Yes there may be some regulatory concerns that need to be addressed. But working in partnership with commodity marketers does not have the problems inherent in many partnerships where the fears of favoring one private company over another, or not having the exclusive relationship with the public entity, dooms the project before it starts. Maybe the question should be: So what would make it work?
via the MIT Advertising Lab.