Wednesday, January 11, 2006

What's So Bad about Social Marketing?

"What's so bad about social marketing?"

This is a compelling question, one that was posed by fellow blogger and U.C. Irvine colleague Julia Lupton, who has been exploring related issues about the role of design in the public sphere on the innovative, collaborative Design Your Life blog. Social marketing refers to the practice of having advertising agencies orchestrate government-funded public relations campaigns aimed at alleviating problems that threaten community health and safey.

In other words, she asked, if a campaign to get children not to play with matches causes fewer children to play with matches, what's wrong with that? After all, who doesn't love Smokey the Bear (the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history)?

It's a position that's hard to argue with. Yet, as her blog points out, it's problematic to put the same advertising agencies who created many of America's health ills (obesity, cigarette smoking, overmedication, etc.) in charge of curing them. Furthermore, as I've begun to trace the genealogy of many of these campaigns back to their politically well-connected sources, I've found that often the same advertising conglomerates involved in social marketing also engage in public diplomacy and other forms of information warfare that require more troubling partnerships with the "virtual state." Besides, PR can be expensive and difficult to justify when social service providers must compete for funds. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but policy makers always must decide how budgets should be apportioned. And marketing money can be difficult to account for compared to concrete goods distributed or services rendered.

Most important, social marketing promulgates top-down forms of political organization. It allows an increasingly centralized government (at both the federal and the state level here in California) to influence public opinion by targeting government spending to persuasive marketing efforts that appeal to implicit, undebated, and even unconscious claims. Sometimes the practice of social marketing can even create cognitive dissonance, particularly when there is an emerging consensus at the grass roots level.

For example, Californians approved a ballot proposition for use of medical marijuana and another one that favored treatment over incarceration for substance abuse offenders, yet young people in the state may perceive mixed messages when targeted by a range of anti-drug campaigns with black-and-white themes: D.A.R.E., Just Say No!, Parents: The Anti-Drug, and now Target America.

The political muscle of large campaigns like Partnership for a Drug-Free America can even shape the content of dramatic entertainment, as a 2000 article reports. As someone who has always taken Aristotle's side of the argument rather than Plato's, I don't like the idea of having my family's exposure to theatrical dilemmas and ambiguities limited by a drug czar or philosopher king, especially while Zenith and Olgivy and Mather are buying the ad time during the station breaks.

Here's my rhetorician's thesis: social change best emerges from open discussion, debate, and compromise. Many people stopped smoking not because social marketers appealed to their vanity, lethargy, envy, greed, and lust; but because smoke-free environments became the norm in workplaces and other public spaces, brought on by a form of ballot proposition democracy that emerged only after decades of hotly contested discursive exchanges.

I would argue that the other factor in this historical transformation to a smoke-free USA was good information design. My mother, like many in the nineteen-sixties, quit smoking as a direct result of the Surgeon General's Report. When government prioritizes information legibility and creates a culture around information literacy, citizens will be empowered as decision-makers and will in turn influence both peers and legislators.

At the end of our discussion we agreed that what was needed was a third way to approach social marketing: neither bureaucratic nor corporate, neither Washington D.C. nor Madison Avenue, a paradigm to fit our evolving participatory cyberculture . . . good public design where the model was open source, networked, peer-to-peer, and perhaps truly nonprofit.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While it is true that many of the higher profile (read better funded) social marketing programs have been federally funded and run by ad agencies, there are numerous examples of bottom-up, or community and state-based programs as well that are conducted by many other public and voluntary groups. I invite you and your colleagues and readers to stay in touch with this vibrant field at my blog: and see especially the Social Marekting in the News section. I hope we can continue this conversation.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Lupton said...

Foucault coined the expression "biopolitics" to describe the extension of the political into the regulation of life and death. (He was picking up on a similar critique launched by Hannah Arendt some years earlier.) Social marketing is a canny, info-savy offshoot of biopolitics. Biopolitics is here to stay. What do we want it to be?

5:46 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

I'm delighted that both of you joined this thread. Both the blog link and the connection to Foucault (who is often an important touchstone in my thinking) were much appreciated.

10:15 PM  
Blogger bb said...

I agree!

10:26 PM  

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