The complexity of many social problems means that the future of social change lies with interdisciplinarity, in fact with transdisciplinarity, where different disciplines focus on shared goals rather than their just pursuing their own approaches in un-integrated parallel. I am in no doubt that social marketing can play a strong part in the interdisciplinary future of behaviour change, but it will fail to do so if it keeps being dismissed – as it often is in the UK - as being a fashionable but ineffectual discipline of shallow thinkers. This is not a fair assessment, but it is worth unpicking where this opinion comes from if as a field we are going to be part of the transdisciplinary future of social change.
The first problem is with evidence.
There is a view, held in academia and practice, that social marketing has a poor, ‘unscientific’ evidence base. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, our practice-based ‘evidence’ in the form of case study write ups often fails to make it into the journals with the highest impact and so we are dismissed by disciplines which have a heritage of rigorous measurement and ‘four star’ publication.
There is a disconnect between practice and academia in social marketing. In the UK many practitioners of social marketing have little if any academic grounding in social marketing, so their interventions can be shallow, their evaluation limited and if there is a publication generated from their work, it tends to be descriptive and lacking in critical contribution. In fact, although evaluation is built into social marketing planning processes, in reality when funding is tight and the demands for results are made too soon after intervention launch, evaluations can often be somewhat token. Also, we never discuss the learning from case studies when results are less than favourable.
Also, our evidence base has suffered in the economic crisis because considerable numbers of academic social marketers are being forced to accept academically uninteresting consultancy work for financial reasons rather than pursue funding for truly innovative projects with real theoretical merit. The result is a lack of research published in top quality journals.
Finally, our reputation as serious thinkers of behaviour change is threatened by some of the commercial agencies who do very visible but nonetheless somewhat vacuous ‘social’ marketing, which often merely scratch the surface of complex social problems. These agencies have creative flair which washes well with the commissioning practitioners, but is seen through by policy makers and academics from our own field and others with whom we should be trying to forge links.
There is a need to focus on innovation.
As a discipline, it is disconcerting how much time is still spent debating how our contribution should be defined and ringfenced. The focus in these discussions is too much on what we have been doing, and not enough on what we need to do to make a real contribution to the future of social change. Arguably, this preoccupation with defining and labelling makes us look paranoid and insecure, and is unlikely to present as a discipline fit for collaboration and ripe with innovative ideas.
Rather, theoretical innovation should be our priority. It is well known that intervention solutions are largely defined by how the societal problem is framed. Thus to achieve intervention innovation, we should be exploring ways of framing the complex problems we want to tackle through new eyes. For example, Social Practice Theory[i] and other culturalist approaches could frame social problems in a new way for social marketers, so that we can start to consider how marketing might contribute to culture change, rather than just engage with people on a cognitive level.
It is clear, given the complexity, depth and of the behavioural problems faced by society, that What’s important about this is that the tools marketing gives us won’t necessarily be enough to make a dent in complex societal problems. But they’re likely to help – so we need to team up with other disciplines for real impact. The future is transdisciplinary.
Finally, we have to be more actively critical of commercial marketing.
Gerard Hastings wrote that social marketing is considered a gentle herbivore, fighting against the tyrannosaurus of commercial marketing. Apart from a few vocal critics, social marketers tend to leave commercial marketers alone to get on with their manipulating, behavioural conditioning, viral infiltration of our minds and cultures. All we do is acknowledge some of their work as ‘competition’ to our behavioural goals, while they are busy kneecapping their commercial competitors and pulling out all the stops – well beyond exchange or voluntary behaviour change – to make yet more profit.
Jim Mintz asked yesterday ‘what is so wrong with marketing?’ As a discipline, nothing, but as a practice, it just provides so much of the landscape for our obese, car-obsessed, materialistic, fizzy drink guzzling, tobacco-addicted, binge-drinking friends and neighbours for it to be ignored.
I say, less fizz more fight.
Having reviewed my words, I can confirm I still stand by everything I said nearly two years ago and I'm chipping away at some of these major problems in my own research.