Social Marketing

According to social marketing expert Nedra Kline Weinreich, propaganda in the health communications field has rapidly changed since 1970. It has evolved from a one-dimensional reliance on public service announcements to a more sophisticated approach which draws from successful techniques used by commercial marketers, termed “social marketing.” Rather than dictating the way that information is to be conveyed from the top-down, public health professionals now claim to listen to the needs and desires of the target audience themselves, and build the program from there. This focus on the “consumer” involves in-depth research and constant re-evaluation of every aspect of the program. In fact, “research” and evaluation together form the very cornerstone of the social marketing process.

Social marketing was “born” as a discipline in the 1970s, when Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman realized that the same marketing principles that were being used to sell products to consumers could be used to “sell” ideas, attitudes and behaviors. As described in their report Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change (1971), social marketing ostensibly “seeks to influence social behaviors not to benefit the marketer, but to benefit the target audience and the general society.” This technique has been used extensively in international health programs, especially for HIV, vaccine programs, and is used in the United States for such diverse topics as drug abuse, heart disease, organ donation, and global warming. Although drug companies generate billions of dollars in annual profits, vaccines remain so dangerous that pharmaceutical lobbyists convinced Congress to indemnify manufacturers when they kill, cripple, and maim thousands of Americans each year. So while manufacturers claim to make these products for the public good, there is little evidence that the vaccine industry benefits anyone but the industry itself.

Weinreich presents one example of a Marketing Mix Strategy for a breast cancer screening campaign for older women, where funding would come from governmental grants, such as from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), or the local health department, foundation grants or an organization like the American Cancer Society. Most Americans have no idea that all three of these organizations are funded directly or indirectly by the pharmaceutical industry, and social marketers have no responsibility to confirm the reliability and credibility of the products or services they promote.

So while Merck may have paid $4 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits related to drugs that kill, cripple, and injure thousands, social marketers are tasked with promoting these reckless campaigns, relying heavily on entrepreneurial researchers (i.e. “junk scientists”) and bearing no responsibility when their campaigns and products harm consumers.