An item in today's Google alert for 'social marketing' was actually about social marketing. The Medical News Today headline: £100 Million Social Marketing Campaign To Encourage Responsible Drinking Announced, UK. Well, that's dramatic; and with a National Centre for Social Marketing and that type of funding, a chance to do some real social marketing around a public health problem in Britain where alcohol consumption has risen by more than 50% in the last 30 years. Then I read on...
Following Gordon Brown's meeting at Downing Street with Britain's top drinks industry executives he called for them to harness their considerable marketing powers to drive for change in social norm and cultural attitudes towards alcohol in the UK. This has resulted in Project 'N' - a collaboration of the not inconsiderable resources of top companies throughout the UK…
The campaign will use outdoor advertising, signs, drink mats in pubs and bars, on-pack and point of sale displays in retailers to deliver its message under the strapline "why let good times go bad?"…The campaign will not talk down to young adults or tell them what to do, which has been shown not to work. Instead it will emphasise the benefits of responsible enjoyment and offer practical tips such as reminders to drink water or soft drinks, eat food and plan to get home safely…
The goal is to reduce public acceptance of drunkenness and to shift public attitudes in order to reduce excessive consumption for 18-34 year olds. It aims to encourage young people to take responsibility for their own behaviour and to pose questions that encourage them to think about their drinking habits. The campaign is working in conjunction with the Department of Health and Home Office to identify KPIs in order to measure the success of the campaign.
Well, despite the headline, not much social marketing there; one might generously label it 'social advertising,' or perhaps health communication. But the campaign clearly does not take advantage of what we know is involved in successful large-scale behavior change campaign [So when is it social marketing?].
So how does a major public health issue become the target of an expensive, industry designed and conducted effort? There may be some history to explain it that I came across when looking for more information about Project 'N' - which I did not find btw.
Michael Marmot wrote in Evidence based policy or policy based evidence in the 17 April 2004 issue of BMJ:
Two reports were published in England in March : one by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the other by the prime minister's strategy unit. The academy's report concluded that to control alcohol problems one needed to control alcohol; that is, reduce the average level of consumption in the population. The academy reached this conclusion on the basis that a strong correlation exists between average consumption, the prevalence of heavy drinking, and associated harm. It found the evidence for education unconvincing and therefore called for raising the price and limiting availability. The prime minister's strategy unit, with access to the same evidence, concluded that controlling average consumption through the mechanism of raising the price and limiting access would have unwanted side effects and was not a viable option. They therefore called for education, more policing, improved treatment, and the alcohol industry entering into voluntary agreements to behave reasonably. The academy working group would agree that all of these actions were necessary. But they took the view, based on evidence, that such actions should complement measures to control overall level of consumption.
Note that the policy-makers opted for an approach that may reduce the problem by 5% [what I call the 1P solution]. It is also interesting to note that it was the scientific community that highlighted the evidence that other parts of the marketing mix needed to be addressed - notably the pricing and availability of alcohol. It was the scientists who called for a bottom line of reducing consumption; yet Project N is all about 'responsibility' and shifting 'public acceptance' and 'attitudes.' Bull shiitake! as Guy Kawasaki might say.
Consider what their pitch for the campaign was (though they would never be this obvious); We are going to craft and deliver a series of tactics driven by the Socratic Method to help young adults develop more rational ways of thinking about their drinking and illuminate new ways to control it. Would you really invest millions of pounds (or dollars) in that? Or even endorse someone else doing it (with a straight face that is)?
There is a systematic way of thinking through this issue that leads to more than advertising, messages and promotional channels. But as Dr. Marmor points out in his piece: It is reasonable to surmise that they [policy-makers] found the prospect of raising the tax on alcohol unattractive, as they did reversing the trend of making it ever easier to buy alcohol. The policy implications of the science may well have influenced their view of the evidence.
Sometimes I think that policy-makers and bureaucrats are not afraid of social marketing because of its connotations ('It's social!' 'It's marketing!'), but because somewhere, somehow they really understand its potential power to change the game. And the costs of fear can have many consequential effects on individuals, families, communities and society.