Australian Association of Social Marketing Symposium 6 October 2015

Today’s talk is really about the mismatch between what social marketers know and what the people who commission and fund social marketing campaigns think they know.

May I start off with some provisos:

First, I am not going to use PowerPoint as I am a great fan of Edward R. Tufte and urge everyone making presentations to read his Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out Corrupts Within. Tufte for those of you who are not familiar with him has been described as the Leonardo da Vinci of data.

Second, I am not really an expert in social marketing although I have worked on, and studied, some high profile social marketing campaigns.

Third, if am an expert in anything it is pitching ideas to organisations and giving them reasons to do what that they ought to do even if they don’t really want to.I should also say I don’t have a 100% track record in this field.

These provisos also reflect what I want to talk to you about today:

  • The psychological and institutional constraints on mounting effective social marketing campaigns.
  • Common perceptions and misconceptions among non-social marketing experts – the sort of people who decide on and fund campaigns.
  • The barriers to persuading funders and organisations to adopt effective, evidence-based campaigns; and,
  • Some suggestions as to how these barriers can be overcome.

First, institutional and psychological constraints on campaigns

The first point about PowerPoint is actually not a point about PowerPoint at all but is instead more about how pre-conceptions shape thinking about social marketing campaigns. Tufte’s argument is that “Power Point, compared to other common presentation tools, reduces the analytical quality of serious presentations of evidence. This is especially the case for the PowerPoint ready-made templates, which corrupt statistical reasoning, and often weaken verbal and spatial thinking.”He continues that “The metaphor of PowerPoint is the software corporation itself. To describe a software house is to describe the PP cognitive style: a big bureaucracy engaged in computer programming (deep hierarchical structures, relentlessly sequential, nested one-short-line-at- a-time) and in marketing (advocacy not analysis, more style than substance, misdirection, slogan thinking, fast pace, branding exaggerated claims, marketplace ethics.) That the PP cognitive style mimics a software house exemplifies Conway’s Law which says:

‘Any organisation which designs a system…will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation’s communication structure’

Now most of you, even thinking briefly about Tufte and Melvin Conway’s insights, can probably bring to mind experiences with some government departments, and many Ministerial political advisers, who have such a large say in the sorts of major social marketing that are undertaken in Australia and elsewhere. At the very least Tufte’s description serves as an apt description of much modern political discourse.

Sure the best of those who fund campaigns have heard a bit about behavioral economics, insights from behavioral psychology, may even have heard the word nudge and the best of them have probably read, or heard of, Kahneman, Thaler and Sunstein. But deep down in their psyches they still have embedded commitments to mass media advertising, fear campaigns and campaigns which show their political bosses are really, deeply, truly worried about a problem and truly, deeply committed to doing something about it. Well, at least to be seen to be doing something about it.

So second: common perceptions or misconceptions about social marketing campaigns

There is no doubt that many of the most famous social marketing campaigns embedded in the minds of these decision makers are fear campaigns such as the original TAC road safety campaign and the Grim Reaper campaign.If you doubt that just think for a minute about the most recent youth drinking, drugs or ice campaigns you might have seen. Or if that’s not enough – ponder for a moment the stupidly thoughtless and insensitive suggestion by one contributor to the domestic violence debate that we needed a ‘hard-hitting’ television campaign to combat the problem.

What is often forgotten about that original TAC campaign was that its primary impact was not to reduce the road toll as such but to create the sense of crisis and community sentiment which made a variety of other road safety measures possible.However, as you would have heard this morning TAC is now pioneering very important new approaches to social marketing and behavior change and I want to return to these new generation approaches later when talking about how to persuade clients and organisations as to what they should really be doing.

A fundamental problem with fear campaigns of course is the tendency to keep upping the ante with a proliferation of rapidly changing and more graphic TV ads where production costs are very high, and campaign runs relatively short, resulting in activity which is probably neither cost effective nor effective.

We all have our favourite awareness/social change campaign disasters but it is always hard to go past the blockbuster of them all – the Grim Reaper campaign. The Grim Reaper campaign which – in conjunction with the Glenn Close film Fatal Attraction – probably frightened the life out of many middle aged middle class heterosexual men.

But the impact on AIDS was limited, particularly when compared with campaigns, devised in conjunction with the gay community and other high-risk groups, targeting specific practices and risks.

In contrast The Canadian Let’s Talk campaign, which focussed on rationality and discussion, was much more effective.

The improved Australian AIDS campaign and the Canadian campaigns were early examples of successful co-creation, effective audience segmentation, consultation and targeted messaging.

It is ironic that there is also ample evidence that innovative co-creation – such as the wonderfully subversive, humorous campaigns devised by young people for the excellent Florida anti-smoking campaig, Truth –  has achieved astonishing results. The Australian Snake Condom campaign with young indigenous Australians is another brilliant example of this approach.

The group with which Lelde McCoy and I worked, Porter Novelli, helped develop the Florida Truth campaign and we brought out to Australia some of the people involved in the campaign to explain how it worked and why.

Shortly afterwards we went to pitch for a Victorian Government anti-drugs campaign targeted towards young people.We went into the room to make the pitch to the panel looking at the proposals and explained that we weren’t presenting a creative approach as such but planned to recruit young people who were the target for the campaign. At the time it was very frustrating but in retrospect it was hilarious.

After we had finished presenting there was silence. It wasn’t one of those we’ve knocked them out silences but rather more bemusement. They looked at us with one of those what have these people been smoking look but eventually politeness took over and there were a few questions.

Are you proposing the young people make the ads? Yes we said – with some professional assistance although you’ll find that they know an awful lot about communicating with their peers.

But what sort of ads will they make? Well they might make ads or they might do something else. It’s a process to involve them.

But who will control them? They won’t be controlled although they will be supervised and supported.

What if we don’t like the ads? Well you may well not but the research with the target audiences will tell us how effective they should be.

The pitch sort of petered out after that and we left knowing it was not going to be successful. Some time later we saw the ads and campaign materials selected by the panel which essentially told the story that ‘drugs are bad for you.’

I should add another proviso here before I go any further – I have worked with the alcohol industry – so you can either disregard the comments which follow, or not, as the case may be.

The doubts about fear campaigns are particularly pronounced when we consider alcohol-related social marketing campaigns.

A few years ago I was involved in a best practice review of alcohol campaigns and it confirmed the 2000 finding by Shanahan and Elliott that public information campaigns addressing youth-risk taking sometimes work as a double-edged sword by initially raising awareness and then curiosity, eventually culminating in increased experimentation with the behaviour they set out to prevent. Young males as we all know, in particular, tend to be risk-takers – reminding them of risks therefore, can encourage more than it discourages.

This was confirmed by research into a Howard Government campaign on a youth drinking featuring youths vomiting and falling about. A significant response was – that’s like the sort of party, I’d like to go to.

The barriers to effective evidence based campaigns

The reality is that these continuing misconceptions and entrenched perceptions about social marketing campaigns are still the major barriers to effective campaigns.

Despite some very honourable exceptions (such as some of the Victorian Department of Justice alcohol campaigns in recent years) we still see campaigns which are captives of decades old thinking about fear and persuasion.

Governments, industry, and some sections of the health lobby and the media love fear campaigns. The Government can appear tough and decisive because they have screened tough and confronting advertising.The media is pre-disposed to believe in the efficacy of the campaigns because they mirror the characteristics of much of the media – sensationalism, short-termism and moral panics.For some in the health lobby they add to the concern that drives research funding and puts a variety of otherwise unpalatable policy prescriptions in play. In the case of alcohol the smarter sections of industry love them because they can sleep easy having been thrashed with a feather duster and knowing the campaigns have probably increased demand for their products.

We perhaps should also recognize that the application of nudge theory is, like fear campaigns, sometimes also a convenient way to avoid action in some cases or to avoid making hard policy and legislative choices.

There is nevertheless no doubt that the successful use of behavioral economic and psychology research findings has significant implications for social marketing and government. Although even here we need to heed Daniel Kahneman’s warnings over the past couple of years that some of the research effort in the area is heading for a ‘train wreck’ due to questions about sample derivation and replicability.

Overcoming the barriers

So how do we overcome the barriers? Most of my comments here are directed to dealing with governments, departments and instrumentalities because in reality they are the major players in the area and they have the budgets.

The first thing is that, however tiresome it becomes, we need to keep promoting the evidence base. Prime Minister Rudd may have given evidence-based policy a bad name but ultimately there is no substitute except for the totally ideologically blinkered.

All the things we take for granted need to be constantly reinforced. Things such as:

  • Case studies of successful and unsuccessful campaigns and activities, for example the community consultation processes adopted by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission which engaged traumatized people while garnering important information about what needed to be done in the future.
  • Up to date research on what people think, why they act as they do and how they might change is still crucial. Too much of the research by those involved in campaigns is still directed towards attitudes to the creative and what recall was achieved rather than more fundamental issues.
  • Simple lay explanations of theory and why it’s important.

Communication staff in government departments and organisations ought to be organizing regular in house seminars for line managers at which academics, experts and the comms staff can have discussions about what we know, what is important and how it applies to their organisation.

The former Chief of Staff to Simon Crean, Mark Maddern wrote a couple of very useful brief handbooks for Ministerial staff – Chiefs of Staff, advisors and media staff – which have been widely distributed in ALP circles. They give detailed, practical advice on the role of advisors and how they can be more effective. Perhaps the AASM should consider a version detailing social marketing best practice, case studies and how to guides which departmental communications staff can provide to Ministerial offices. I should say they may not be as carefully read as the Herald-Sun but someone will read them and start talking about them.

Second, we need to exploit the new found political interest in grass roots campaigning and social media to re-frame co-creation, community participation, partnerships and similar activities as an integral part of grass roots communications.

The Andrews Government, for instance, largely won the last election on the basis of community campaigning and partnerships. Effective social marketing campaigns should be framed as an extension of this new reality – the re-discovery of the grass roots. Of course this doesn’t just mean knocking on doors – it also gives us the opportunity to expand on the sort of social network analysis Duncan Watts has talked about as a way to understand how communities form links.

Third, we need to frame the new approaches, and the greater theoretical knowledge on which they are based, in terms of both effectiveness and cost effectiveness. This ought to be done in terms of showing how, as we all know, social marketing campaigns work best when they genuinely engage the community.

I suspect that few in government are aware of the extent to which high profile, mass media government advertising actually turns people off. In terms of cost effectiveness community engagement can be labour and resource intensive but it does tend to avoid the political odium which comes when the media buy and production costs for mass media campaigns become known.

It’s interesting to know, in this context, that research has shown that official authorisations on government advertising reduce the likelihood of people trusting the material and increase the likelihood of them reacting negatively about the campaign. Greater trust, lower cost and less political embarrassment are not bad trade offs to offer clients.

Fourth, we need to continually emphasize that while behavior change is the ultimate goal of effective social marketing – social marketing can also play a major role in re-framing debates about policy.

It is this area where TAC is becoming increasingly successful – particularly in the area of renewing public interest in road trauma and safety.

The fact is that many Victorians:

* Think we have done a great job on road safety (which we have in many respects);

* Form their attitudes primarily on the significant reduction in road deaths as the indicator of success; and

* Display clear indications that they, Victorians, are becoming complacent.

Recent TAC campaigns, for instance on the impact of non-fatal trauma (a very important issue for both society and an insurer such as TAC), are attempts to not only challenge this complacency but also focus on creating a safe system of road use by looking at the complex interactions between systems, infrastructure, road and car safety and regulation.

In contrast social marketers are often called on after the policy is decided rather than in the policy development process. I know the so-called nudge units around the place are supposed to be heavily involved in policy formulation but I’m not sure that this is an occasionally resorted to, when convenient, luxury rather than an integral part of all policy decision-making and framing.

In contrast this TAC alliance of systems analysis with social marketing techniques is creating a campaign which is re-framing the policy debate not only within government but also within the community. It also has implications for anyone in any policy area who wants to achieve change.

Finally, if I can go back to Daniel Kahneman who I must confess has done more than anyone else to re-shape my thinking about communications. Kahneman, along with Angus Deaton, has also been looking at senses of well-being, happiness, self-esteem and life evaluation in general.

In essence the research has looked at the relationships between income and well-being and, not surprisingly, found that having more money (up to a certain point) makes you happier and gives you a greater sense of well-being while not having much money does the opposite. Some of this is consistent with the plentiful happiness research which is around and the assertions about connections between Gini indices and well-being. At the risk of getting into one of the train wrecks Kahneman has warned about, this well-being research might have broader implications for social marketing and how to persuade governments to adopt evidence-based best practice.

Income is obviously not the only determinant of well-being and perhaps, when discussing social marketing options with governments, departments and instrumentalities we should also be advocating how policy could be related to senses of well-being.

This is a speculative kite on my behalf but I’m absolutely certain that your average Ministerial staffer would be delighted by anything which gives voters and the community a sense of well-being. It would be a pleasant change from government communications which are design to promote fear, uncertainty and a sense of unease rather than well-being. At the very least it would be worth a research grant application or two.


  • We do need to recognize the institutional and psychological constraints on effectiveness
  • We do need to recognize the misconceptions and perceptions which shape these constraints and be prepared to work around them even though we know they are based on an outdated social marketing model
  • We need to recognize the political and organizational barriers
  • But we also need to focus on working around the barriers by re-framing how social marketing is thought of, what it can do and where it fits in policy formulation.

Perhaps most importantly we also need to apply our knowledge of framing and framing theory and remember that he or she who frames the issue or message about how social marketing works and the role it can play sets the agenda.