October 27, 2015

What is Social Marketing?

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Hello. My name is Kenny Neal Shults. I am a public health consultant, filmmaker, actor, writer, stand-up comedian, and sometimes I sell churros in the subway. I spend most of my time working with non-profits and organizations that deliver vital health information and services to vulnerable populations such as teens, gay men, intravenous drug users, trans women, people in poverty, etc. I’ve spent nearly 20 years working in this field, mainly because I happen to belong to a couple of these groups that public health people like to term “high-risk.”  (I’ll let you guess which.) But also because I have been witness to some really appalling ways that public health entities use to get people to behave in ways that are good for them. Trying to change people’s behavior is not easy, or simple. But simplistic, one-size-fits-all approaches can cause major harm.

In the 90’s, as a young (extremely attractive) gay man, sex was many things to me: a mystery, terrifying, something I couldn’t stop thinking about, scary, thrilling, confusing, and petrifying. The messaging that HIV prevention people were using when I was in my early twenties was indistinguishable from what one might expect to hear from a mean school teacher or out-of-touch granny: “Use A Condom Every Time.” You could almost feel the wind from the finger wagging in your face. This condom-every-time marketing was the backbone of all the marketing, advertising, and behavior change programming delivered at the time. There were no distinctions between using a condom for oral or anal sex; no options for one day not having to use a condom (such as with a monogamous, negative partner); no nuances, no room for error, and no compassion for the value gay men (and everyone else) places on barrier-free sex.

It’s understandable. The 80’s were characterized by a dire need to educate gay men that condoms weren’t just for straight people anymore. You have to remember, that condoms were those things heteros used to prevent pregnancy but were now being marketed as our primary tools for staying alive. This bizarre shift needed to be marketed heavily in order to get people the information that would change their risky behaviors – because people at that time didn’t know it was risky. But after a few years of effectively getting the word out, no changes were made to this marketing strategy. Once men knew to use condoms HIV prevention strategies tried to brand condoms as “sexy” and “erotic” – a Sisyphean task. There was no place to complain about condoms, share fears of HIV infection, or process the impact the epidemic had on our lives. We were just told to use a condom. Every time.

What no one consciously realized at the time is that the tacit expectation of this strategy was that gay men would follow the rules, or get what’s coming to them. They didn’t intentionally communicate this – there were many well-intentioned people in the fight against HIV. It’s just, what HIV prevention specialists didn’t understand was that that their marketing needed to evolve as gay men learned the basics. Once we knew how to use condoms, we needed some additional guidance to tell us when we got to NOT use them. Instead, public health and HIV prevention professionals doubled down on the condom-every-time standard regardless of how impossible it was to meet, and what resulted was a backlash that created an entire community of men who would rather become infected than live in abject terror every time they had sex. Barebacking became a lifestyle among many men that contributed to a dramatic number of HIV infections, and it was simply the result of bad social marketing.

Be A Rubberman

So what is social marketing? Commercial marketing is the selling and advertising of products and services. Our entire economy is dependent upon the successful marketing strategies that keep people buying crap they don’t need. There are huge areas of thought and study surrounding this industry, and doing it well is an art form that uses science. Social Marketing is the marketing of behaviors and attitudes that contribute to a better world. Wear a seatbelt, Don’t Drink and Drive, Loose Lips Sink Ships – this is all social marketing. Effective (and principled) social marketing uses behavioral science theories such as the Health Belief Model and the Theory of Reasoned Action – prescriptions for how to get people to change their behaviors. It takes into account the values and the aptitudes of the people it’s targeting. It allows people to consider what they are giving up and what they are gaining by adopting a new behavior or abandoning an old one. It offers people solutions they can live with. Most importantly, it gives people hope.

At the heart of the mid-90’s social marketing strategy I endured was a sentiment that felt something like, “Hey, you could really easily get AIDS, and if you mess up, even once, you’re probably going to.” Not surprisingly, the reaction to this not-so-hidden message wasn’t favorable. HIV prevention strategies were hilariously insulting – right up there with “Just Say No” or “Call 911.” Nowhere in that decade, or the one after that (or this one for that matter), did we ever feel the sentiment, “You can survive, and have a great sex life.” Or, “It’s actually kinda hard to get HIV so if you do a few things to prevent it you should be fine…” Or some real-life risk-reduction (as opposed to risk elimination) information that didn’t throw all of our sexual activities into the same scary bucket such as, “Suck all the dick you want, but use a condom for butt stuff.” Instead, we held up an impossible behavioral standard and alienated anyone we might have been able to help with some decent social marketing.

So now I do social marketing – obvi. But I produce social marketing campaigns WITH the people we are trying to reach. Rather than asking a focus group about their thoughts on an issue and generating a campaign based on focus group data, we just work with a focus group to make their own messaging. Only they can know if a message is realistic, or insulting, or empowering, or shaming. Only they can make a message that strikes the right chords and gives the consumer agency over their own bodies and choices. We can’t just run around wagging our fingers in “at risk” populations’ faces and expect them to respond with the behavior we want them to exhibit. We have to find ways to show that we care, and more importantly, understand. And only people within the population can do that in a truly authentic manner.

Social marketing is often confused with social media marketing – so let me clarify. Social marketing has been around much longer than social media. It’s what we used to call PSAs. They were used to sell war bonds and get women to join the workforce in WWII. Social marketing was used to (try) to keep kids off drugs by likening their brains to an egg in a frying pan. It was used to stop people from littering by showing a Native American crying by the highway (who was played by an Italian guy btw). And they are now used to (try) to keep kids from smoking. Billions of dollars taken from the lawsuits of the major tobacco companies are used to fund The Truth Project’s ads – a series of slick, prime time spots that educate young people about the dangers of smoking. But the wonderful truth about social marketing is that it no longer relies on TV networks and prohibitively expensive prime time ad space for distribution. This is where social media and social marketing meet.


New Media – Internet, cellular communications, SMS, instant messaging, streaming digital video – has sparked a revolution – actually, a few of them. The power of new media to connect us and get us on the same page quicker has resulted in an Arab Spring, a new “share economy”, Gay Marriage, and more than any of us even perceives. When I was a kid I had to go to the library to look up the word “homosexual” in order to better understand myself. The descriptions I found there were less than flattering. These days, no one has to limit their knowledge by the restrictions of a library, their parents, or an educational institution. We just Google it. And while this may have become commonplace to us all, the effects of this shift are enormous. After all, it’s not just information we seek, or find. We also seek and find opinions, insights, and perspectives that we would otherwise never have considered. We find organic social marketing.

Each day I go on Facebook I see social marketing everywhere. People complaining about the use of an archaic word; a meme that subverts Donald Trump; even pictures of obese people roaming around Walmart in scooter chairs can tell us a story and make us think. Social media was MADE for social marketing. Social Learning Theory tells us that we learn best from our peers. The people we “follow” or “like” or “friend” act as models, and we in turn attempt to emulate the behaviors and perspectives of the most-rewarded models. Social media is one huge social learning landscape where we learn, think, and grow. While this organic, user-generated form of social marketing is very powerful (and sea changing), we can also leverage the new media landscape for highly targeted behavior-change (social marketing) campaigns that are thoughtfully constructed to provoke critical thought and emotions that help drive behavior and attitude change. This is the new era of social marketing, that doesn’t depend on fear, shame, or ignorance to motivate behavior, but rather inspiration.

Thanks for listening. To see some of our population-produced campaigns see our YouTube channel.

Kenny Shults
Author: Kenny Shults
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Comments (1)

  • MsAudesapereindividuals with the diagnosis who are wnliilg to speak so openly are a huge help to me as a woman with an hiv positive (hetero) partner. I feel like I am better prepared to help him cope, even after five years of being together. Protecting myself isn’t just about the physical aspects, it’s also about preserving our relationship to the best of my ability. Just a little note to let you know you are making a difference for many aspects of this community, including loved ones.

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