Marketing as a tool for genuine social change

Even prior to effectively coining a name for the field of social marketing, Philip Kotler was already exploring and identifying alternative uses of traditional marketing practices.

In ‘Broadening the Concept of Marketing’, a paper written with Sidney Levy in 1969, he suggests that marketers were possibly being too narrow in their understanding of the field. Kotler & Levy (1969:10) resolutely pointed out that “marketing is a pervasive social activity that goes beyond the selling of toothpaste, soap and steel”.  In what probably was one of the first academic attempts to widen the definition and the use of marketing, they further augment their argument:

“The authors see a great opportunity for marketing people to expand their thinking and to apply their skills to an increasingly interesting range of social activity. The challenge depends on the attention given to it; marketing will either take on a broader social meaning or remain a narrowly defined business activity.”

Although marketing comes with its own conspicuous “baggage” (Andreasen, 2006:10), it would be foolish to ignore the positive qualities of the field and effectively throw the baby out with the bath water. While one may feel disquieted about some situations brought about by a irresponsible use of marketing practices – such as pressures to drink the right beer, wear the right clothes, eat the right food and buy the right brands – the success stories of numerous ventures do say a lot about the power of marketing.

The main challenge then is “to find ways to use that power for social good beyond the marketplace” (Andreasen, 2006:11).

I believe that it would be wise to identify accomplishments of conventional marketing practices and emulate the way marketing tools are used to generate a similar success in social spheres.

Then if clever marketing power can encourage people to shop at particular stores or patronise particular gift shops, it could also be used to exhort target audiences to wear their seat-belts, clean up after their dogs, dispose of their rubbish thoughtfully and enjoy sex responsibly, amongst a multitude of other concerns that social marketers would be willing to address.

Whilst recognising that conventional marketing has touched our lives so much that it has turned us into “walking adverts”, Hastings (2007:3) does not think that this phenomenon is exclusively negative.  He affirms that what commercial marketers are evidencing is “an enviable capacity to influence behaviour”.

His hypothesis is that the ability to influence behaviour is “far too valuable” to be limited to profit-making transactions, and that the transposition of these skills into social marketing – which he believes is “a matter of life and death” – has become critical (Hastings, 2007:4).  Andreasen (2006:11) firmly agrees with this reasoning.  Throughout his book ‘Social marketing in the 21st century’, he disputed that

“…the same basic principles that can induce a 12-year old in Bangkok or Leningrad to get a Big Mac and a care-giver in Indonesia to start using oral rehydration solutions for diarrhea can also be used to influence politicians, media figures, community activists… and other individuals whose actions are needed to bring about widespread, long-lasting, positive social change.”


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