What is Social Marketing?

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  • Written By: Anna B. Smith
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Social marketing is the use of advertising practices to effect good social change. Some examples include advertising campaigns designed to get people to stop smoking or marketing ads that encourage people to eat healthier foods. This type of marketing differs from business marketing in that it targets positive social change while business marketing targets increased financial benefit.

Social marketing combines social policy and marketing practices to achieve set social behavioral goals within a target audience. This use of marketing was developed in 1970 when two business advertisers, Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman, began to use traditional marketing tools to sell concepts and behavioral practices instead of products. Business marketing attempts to discover what problems consumers may have and then offers those products in a way that meets their perceived needs. Social marketing researches what problems the public or community may have and then seeks to determine what behavioral changes would be necessary to remedy that problem. Health promotion is one of the largest sectors that utilizes this type of marketing by encouraging positive health choices amongst consumers without offering a specific product. One example of a social marketing campaign that promotes healthy choices would be ad campaigns across Africa that encourage safe sexual practices to deter the spread of AIDS.


The primary objective of social marketing typically is to create positive social changes; for example, not all not-for-profit marketing is necessarily considered social. Not-for-profit marketing may have alternative objectives outside of “good” social change, such as electing a political candidate or raising money for specific charities. This type of marketing may incorporate some social messages that promote positive social change, such as adapting to environmentally friendly energy sources or increased awareness of cancer causes, but these messages may not comprise the primary focus of the marketing campaign and thus would not be considered social marketing.

Business marketing makes use of the marketing mix to establish a target audience and develop an effective campaign for reaching that audience. This mix is comprised of identifying the the so-called four Ps of marketing: product, price, place and promotion. Social marketing normally operates within these same parameters, putting behavioral change in place of product. A social marketer generally first identifies the behavior that needs changing within the target audience. Next, the price an individual pays for changing their behavior is established, such as the potential for social embarrassment. The marketer would then identify which places would be appropriate for advertising the need for this new type of behavior, and finally decide which promotional materials they might use to persuade consumers to change.

Social marketing typically works best when the price for the behavioral changes is overshadowed by the benefits the target audience receives. New social policies and attitudes often compete with existing social attitudes, creating a behavioral exchange for which social marketers must account when developing their marketing campaigns. Long-term social change typically occurs when policies are set that match the behavioral change being affected or recommended. One highly effective tool social marketers use to reach their target audiences is the media. According to agenda-setting theory, the media can influence both public agenda and policy agenda, persuading the target audience to change to the recommended good behavior and policy makers to enact new laws that reinforce that behavior.


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Post 3

@pastanaga - Well, sometimes it's not about making an immediate statement, but about getting into the community consciousness. If people see ads demonstrating that drunk driving is bad over and over, they might simply take the message on board without thinking about it.

And some social marketing campaigns do make a direct difference as well. I remember seeing one on social media where ads in a shopping mall were designed to look like a normal child from an adult's height, and an abused child at a child's height and there was a number that only children could see that they could call if they were in trouble.

That's the kind of thing that could save a life if someone saw it who really needed it, and it managed to do good without alerting the abusers to what was going on.

Post 2

@KoiwiGal - I'm not sure that any of it is all that effective, to tell the truth. I don't remember being influenced by any social advertising when I decided to give up smoking, and most anti-drinking ads make me want to drink more because they are so condescending.

Personally, I think it's enough to just tell people what the dangers are, make it illegal for them to harm others (like through drunk driving prohibition and age limits) and then let them decide for themselves.

Social marketing strategies are often very clever, but I don't look at them and think, wow I've learned something new and now I'm going to change my whole life.

Post 1

One of the best social marketing advertisements I've ever seen for anti-smoking campaigns was the one filmed by Yul Brynner just before he died from lung cancer. I know it might seem exploitative, but I think getting someone who is actually facing the doom predicted by the product is the best one to tell others not to use it.

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