"Combining product distribution with a health communication campaign results in greater behavior change than using a health communication campaign alone."
That is the conclusion of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services in their statement Health Communication & Social Marketing: Health Communication Campaigns That Include Mass Media & Health-Related Product Distribution. Their finding is based on a systematic review of 22 studies from 1982 - 2009 that combined communication campaigns to increase awareness of, demand for, and appropriate use of a health-related product that was distributed free of charge or at a reduced price. The Task Force found a median increase of 8.4% in the proportion of people who engaged in a healthy behavior related to use of the product distributed (child safety seats, condoms, pedometers, recreational safety helmets, sun safety and smoking cessation campaigns with nicotine replacement therapies were included in their analysis. Services such as mammograms, products that required a prescription or administration by a health care professional, one-time behaviors such as installing smoke alarms and specific food products were excluded in the analysis).
The Task Force goes on to note:
Overall, results were consistently favorable across products with various characteristics (e.g., reusable versus single-use products; inherently protective products versus those that facilitate behavior change; those that promote the adoption of healthful new behaviors and the cessation of risky behaviors) and across a wide range of baseline usage rates (median baseline usage rate of 9.7 pct pts [IQI: 5.1 to 18.2]). These results suggest that combining mass media health communication campaigns with distribution of any of a variety of health-related products that meet the inclusion criteria specified above is likely to be effective in influencing the intended health behaviors.
This report is immensely important to social marketers. It is the first time that social marketing programs have been reviewed and, better yet, found to be effective by a leading policy-setting group [the Guide to Community Preventive Services, supported by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, serves a similar function to groups organized to review the evidence and make recommendations for preventive services and medical interventions.] Though I would be the last to argue that simply adding a product to a communication campaign makes it 'social marketing,' I do take satisfaction in their finding that it takes us beyond 5% solutions.
The Task Force also had recommendations to improve social marketing research; specifically,
- More detailed reporting of the details of the intervention - including the methods used to develop it, and more consistent use of terminology within the field
- Assessing the sustainability and effectiveness of long-term programs
- Improving the collection of information about priority, or target, groups to improve the understanding of possible differential effects of programs based on age, gender and race/ethnicity (though I would argue that there are more important variables to consider than the old epidemiological standbys)
- Comparing the intensity of different study arms. Though their discussion simply focuses on the different levels of promotion that might be necessary for audiences “to receive the message in order to help increase the likelihood of behavior change,” I suggest that intensity can also be reflected in the prices at which products are offered, as well as the amount of access and opportunities there are to use them - and of course the differences in features and branding that may distinguish one product from another and affect its relevance and appeal to different groups of people.
And for more ideas for social marketing research, see these priorities from the Institutes of Medicine.