Sunday, 31 October 2010

Bad science in a good cause is bad science: social marketing under a spotlight

John Davies, a professor with scruples, explains why bad science in a good cause is still bad science.

The object of his attack is social marketing, which is manipulating/influencing people to achieve societal goals, as opposed to marketing in a commercial context, which clearly aims to influence people for commercial gain. Social marketing prides itself on manipulating people for their own benefit. However I don't know a huge amount about this area so have included this link from the Open University, which introduces some of the ideas behind social marketing. It says that social marketing relies on voluntary compliance rather than coercion. My thoughts: velvet glove, iron fist (h/tap Chris Snowdon).

Social marketing appears critical of commercial marketing, however the book Social Marketing carries the subtitle 'Why should the devil have all the best tunes?' Proponents such as Gerard Hastings, the book's author, clearly have much to learn from commercial marketing about the techniques of persuasion, but will they be any more honest than their commercial counterparts? 

The Open University link above explains social marketing as 'marketing to achieve social goals'. But whose social goals? Is there a social consensus about the matters that social marketing is involved with, namely health and the environment? Certainly not, I would suggest, these days.

Social marketing is mentioned frequently in anti-smoking initiatives, indeed John Davies refers to the passive smoking concept as an example in his video. ASH Scotland's recent report Beyond Smoking refers to it in both section 2 (Cessation) and section 3 (reducing exposure to second-hand smoke). In both these sections social marketing is employed to influence people into behavioural changes. The end is clearly felt to justify the means (John Davies tells how it is also employed in education about cocaine use). 

Social marketing also popped its head up at the 2010 UK National Smoking Cessation Conference in Glasgow, in the shape of at least one session featuring the use of social marketing: it featured telling the stories of real life quitters and was presented by Andy Lloyd and Martyn Willmore of Fresh Smoke Free North East (their group is also featured in the recent Forest report, from page 10). Lloyd, interestingly, is Media, Communications and Social Marketing Manager for their organisation, which gives some idea how central social marketing is to the tobacco war. 

We are grateful to John Davies for putting the question: once you start telling lies, or disguising the truth in a good cause, where does it stop? I think he did not quite ask, Who decides what the truth should be? Where's the accountability? All good questions, and ones that the public increasingly begin to ask.


subrosa said...

Excellent post Belinda. Must see if somehow the Prof can be persuaded to answer your questions.

Anonymous said...

What John Davies describes is pretty unscrupulous social advertising using fear appeals which have been pretty much discredited in the academic literature. This is not what social marketing is about, but this is a definite issue as many people don't understand what it is really about.

The National Social Marketing Centre website is a good resource which offers information on what social marketing involves, but key concepts include consumer orientation, generating insight, providing motivational exchanges and overcoming barriers to behaviour change. A starting point is understanding people's needs and wants, goals and motivations. It is the complete opposite of a top down approach traditionally used in public health, where medical experts tell people what is best for them. For example, if an intervention seeks to increase levels of physical activity but there is no access to facilities then an SM programme may seek to provide access to these.

Belinda said...

Thanks for this information – my entire understanding of social marketing so far comes from Gerard Hastings but interesting that you say some of the tactics used are completely discredited in the literature.