Two weeks ago Lisa Mighton posted on the social marketing list serve 'Criticism of Social Marketing.' With her permission, an edited version:
Recently I had some email exchanges with a colleague who works in development communication. This person finds that people are often critical of social marketing, particularly because of how it has been used for HIV/AIDS campaigning - eg., promoting condoms but not addressing the underlying reasons why people weren't using them. In what ways is this true; in what ways isn't it?
Here is my response [links added]:
How one uses social marketing is contingent on the implicit or explicit theory one has to explain and predict (and thus possibly influence) behavior. The use of an exchange model for social marketing programs, especially in the developing world where many social marketing programs involve the promotion of products (e.g., condoms, birth control methods,
oral rehydration solutions and mosquito nets) that are made available
through various nonprofit and for-profit distribution networks with
prices typically well below competitors’ offerings (due to
subsidization by donor agencies), reflects an economic theory of man [Economic Man] that emphasizes self-interest and rational decision-making. Though this position is tenable in the consumer, and to some extent, services marketing sector, the ascendance of behavioral economics is due to the fact that this model has its shortcomings in other settings.
In the US and many other ‘developed countries,’ my perspective is that social marketing has grown out of efforts to apply behavioral theories such as social cognitive theory, the health belief model, the transtheoretical model (stages of change), diffusion theory and other psychological, social, community and political theories to population-based behavior change. As a consequence, there is much less emphasis on tangible products. Indeed, some of the earliest concerns of social marketers centered around the notion of ‘making the intangible tangible’ – a concern, I’ll point out, that exists to this day in the over reliance on developing communication products – whether they be posters, pamphlets, PSAs and publicity events (the 4Ps of not marketing, but communicating).
To your question, yes I would commiserate with your friend that many very real determinants of behavior are overlooked by, in my mind, a simplistic assumption that economic theories can be used for understanding, predicting and changing complex behaviors. When we first convened a group of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ social marketers at an early Innovations in Social Marketing Conference, one inescapable conclusion several of us from both perspectives shared was that we truly came from different ‘cultures,’ tribes or traditions of social marketing. Rather than placing a value judgment on the differences, the question for world changing becomes: When do the different models make the most sense to apply to a specific health or social problem and in what circumstances?
Your friend is also not alone in their assessment of social marketing. It is a position that is even more vociferously voiced by people such as Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who serves as a special advisor to the UN Secretary General. His position (now the plug) has been documented several times in the Social Marketing In the News section of my blog: He would prefer to see it banned when it comes to asking people to pay for mosquito nets – regardless of the price.
Bottom line: Your theoretical or philosophical model for how behavior comes to be, is maintained and can be most effectively modified or changed determines how you use the principles and tools that social marketing provides. This was always the central point of people like Larry Wallack and other proponents of a social determinants point-of-view who criticized social marketing for ‘blaming the victim.’ Individual theories of behavior change will lead you down that path, whether you utilize a social marketing approach or some other model. The rise of social ecological models, policy interventions and environmental change approaches to public health are all attempts to reorient how ‘we’ view the world and interact with it in our professional capacities. In the way I think about social marketing, it provides a systematic and strategic way to think about issues of being audience-centric, aware of and responsive to larger trends and competition in the environment, using research to guide and inform program development, and applying the 4Ps. The more theoretical models we have in our toolboxes to bring to the task, the more successful, I believe, we will be.