Social Marketing, Marketers and Responsibility

Set Godin

Seth Godin, a business and marketing thought-leader and someone I’ve written on before, posed the question on his blog: Are marketer’s responsible for what they promote?

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Are you responsible for what you market?

Let’s assert that marketing works.

If it works, then, are you responsible for what happens after that?

If you market cigarettes aggressively, are you responsible for people dying of lung cancer?

I think there are two ways to go here:

1. You’re not responsible. The marketer is like a lawyer representing the obviously guilty client. Everyone is entitled to a lawyer, and it’s up to the jury to decide. The lawyer’s job is to do the best she can, not to decide on the outcome. Market the best you can and let buyers take responsibility.

2. You are responsible. Your insight and effort cause people to change, and without you, that change would never happen.

My take: if you’re not proud of it, don’t sell it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, social marketing in the health sector (not including the ‘miracle cure’ hawkers) tends towards promoting “healthful” things. Yet, even these supposedly healthful activities such as donating to a particular cause, paying attention to certain lines of evidence, or attending certain educational events have unintended consequences. Donations to one charity means that money isn’t going to others. Adhering to certain protocols and procedures means disregarding or not paying attention to others. While choosing to attend certain events takes you away from other activities you could pursue (like your email back at the office, meetings with colleagues, time with family, or attending other events).

While the above example of cigarettes might lead us to an obvious answer to Seth’s question, what about what happens in our knowledge translation activities on the side of health? Do we stop to consider the unintended consequences of our actions, even if they are well intentioned? Systems thinking is one of the tools to help us through this, particularly systems dynamic modeling. On an individual level, contemplative inquiry is another strategy.

In both cases, we need time, care, attention and the capacity to bring this knowledge to light.

One example is with the Transtheoretical Model and Stages of Change theory. When I started getting into the health field Stages of Change was just gaining popularity. A search of PubMed finds nearly 1000 published articles using variants on the Stage of Change concept. In a nutshell, this theory suggests we work our way up to change by planning over time towards a change. Local, provincial/state, and national programs throughout the world have taken this approach to organizing their activities. For a while it seemed that the only way to get funded was to have some accounting of stage.

The problem was, Stage of Change does a lousy job of predicting change in certain behaviours. Robert West and others looked at the evidence and found that in many cases, Stages of Change did a terrible job of predicting whether people would change their behaviour or not, particularly in the realm of addictions. Smokers or problem drinkers might stop “cold turkey” without any advance planning, which isn’t well accounted for by the model.

Yet, the model, so ingrained in the psyche of many health promotion planners and educators, continues to be used widely, blinding us to other options. The unintended consequences of this is that we are often unable (unwilling?) to consider that other models might work. Or, that the models we have don’t work as well as we’d hoped and that maybe we need new ones. By not only putting these ideas out there, but actively promoting them, we are marketing not only products, but ways of thinking about problems and it is here that we get into trouble.

Pride in what you do might avoid the problem’s that Seth Godin in talking about, but when it obscures our vision from considering other options, it might be time to do less social marketing and more social systems thinking.

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