Social Marketing & Social Justice: A Conversation with Les Pappas of Better World Advertising

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This blog post includes an audio interview with Les Pappas. Founder and president of Better World Advertising, one of the world’s foremost Social Marketing Agencies. But before diving in, let me get one thing out of the way first.

Social Marketing is not Social Media Marketing. It is the practice of using marketing techniques to influence positive behaviour change among target populations. It was defined as a discipline way back in 1971, in the seminal text  Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change by Philip Kotler & Gerald Zaltman. It’s been used by governments, non-profit organizations and especially public health departments the world over. Social Media is a tactic that is often used by Social Marketers, but they are not in any way synonymous.

There. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to it.

To Nudge or to Persuade?

The first time I met Les was at Leading Social Change 2012. In his talk he described how Social Marketing was actually being used before being formalized by Kotler and Zaltman in 1971, and cited social marketing tactics being used in India in the 1960s to promote birth control, because “a persuasion-based approach was favoured over a legislative approach”. He went on to say that the fundamental role of social marketing is to “encourage people to make changes on their own” and that social marketing is “not about forcing people to make changes, it’s more focused on showing people that certain behaviours are more in their own self-interest or for the greater good than others, and helping them make [those] changes”.

Nudge-coverThat really stuck with me, especially because I had just read Nudge (2008) by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, which makes a compelling case for a lightly invisible hand choice-architecture approach the authors call Libertarian Paternalism. In Libertarian Paternalism, systems-design can be used to exploit innate tendencies in human decision making patterns to promote better, healthier and wiser decisions about personal health, wellbeing and personal economy. Much of Nudge is rooted in the work of Daniel Kahneman, best summarized in his 2011 work, Thinking Fast and Slow.

thinking-fast-and-slowKahneman argues that our brains have two modes, rational and emotional. The former is slow thinking, the latter is fast thinking. Many of the decisions we make are made by the fast system, even if we think the slow system is in charge. Nudge suggests that by using simple systems-design techniques, like displaying the salad more prominently in the cafeteria queue than the french fries, people will make the healthier choice.

So I had just read this and then here was Les, talking about persuasion again. And it made me realize that you can nudge people to change their behaviour at a single decision point, but if you want them to change over the long-term, you need to equip them with the knowledge, confidence and skills required to sustain behaviour change. That’s social marketing.

You can put the salad up-the-line, and people may elect to eat it, but they also need to know why that’s a better choice, and they need to feel good about making that choice. Nudge+Knowledge = Sustainable Social Change.
It was an epiphany for me, and I’ve followed Les ever since. I interviewed him back in 2012 and the text of that interview can be found here. But I digress.

Can Social Marketing Support Social Justice?

gayprideEarlier this Summer the Supreme Court of the United States finally ruled in favour of marriage equality. I penned my celebratory thoughts about the ruling here, in another blog post. Ever since then I’ve been wondering about the role of Social Marketing in influencing societal change. This is all getting into really subtle distinctions, but here’s what I mean:

Nudge is a great way to influence individual decisions at the point of choice. Social Marketing is a great way to empower individuals to want to make better choices, but both frameworks operate at the level of the individual, rather than the society.

What I want to know is, what role does Social Marketing play in building a more equitable, just and compassionate society, if any? By Social Justice, I’m referring to movements like marriage equality, social/racial equality, gender equality. These are social movements, often galvanized around certain political outcomes but really much broader in scope. For example, the passage of marriage equality is not the end of the LGBTQA movement, just like efforts to achieve racial equality (and harmony) didn’t end with the civil rights movement of the 60s.

But what role, if any, does Social Marketing have in these movements? Certainly, many of the tactics of Social Marketing (and by extension, marketing proper) are used by activists pushing for progress on any of these fronts.

There appears to be something of a subtle schism in the Social Marketing community, with some people asserting that it remain politically agnostic and center its focus solely on improving outcomes for individuals. There are others who propose that you can’t separate someone’s behaviour from their social context, and as such, improving individual outcomes is intrinsically tied to building a more equitable, inclusive society.

Who Is Les Pappas (Who’s Your Pappas!?)

betterworldadvertisingscreenshotBased on our conversation, Les is pretty squarely in the latter camp. He’s of the mind that Social Marketing works best when operating in a Social Justice framework. And I agree with him. I agree with him because there’s ample evidence to propose that you can’t separate health outcomes from socio-economic status. If you’re interested in the data behind these indicators, just peruse the StatsCan website which has devoted an entire section of their site to the Social Determinants of Health.


To me this means, if you want to persuade people to make better choices over the long-term, you need to support their struggles for equality.

And Les, in his work with Better World Advertising, has a history of doing that. He’s used compelling, bold creative to promote HIV/AIDS prevention, smoking cessation, healthier eating habits, suicide prevention, vaccination, foster care and adoption and countless other programs aimed at improving the lives of people, especially those in minority or historically discriminated-against populations.


Screenshot 2015-08-06 at 7.38.46 PM

But what distinguishes his company’s work from that of other Social Marketing firms is that he doesn’t avoid the political or social inequalities that often determine unhealthy outcomes. He confronts them, head-on. Some of Better World Advertising’s work takes on social justice issues explicitly, by trying to directly promote acceptance and understanding for disenfranchised populations, like this LGBT awareness campaign in China, intended to promote acceptance of LGBT people called Love Is Not A Choice.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 at 7.40.29 PM
Other work his company has done tackles social justice issues in a more subtle way like this campaign intended to reduce suicides amongst LGBT youth called Don’t Erase Your Queer Future. Implicit in this campaign is an understanding that a lack of genuine social equality and empathy drive many LGBT youth towards suicide; the social justice aspects of the campaign are inseparable from the social marketing ambitions of the campaign.

Screenshot 2015-08-06 at 7.42.01 PM

Our Conversation

The focus of my discussion with Les was on the relationship between Social Marketing and Social Justice: is there a place for Social Marketing in advocating on behalf of marginalized populations?

Les made this great point, that he reiterated throughout the conversation, that you can’t expect to change behaviour among a population without celebrating their struggles. He kept coming back to this, which tied it all together for me. How can you communicate with a population experiencing discrimination, a major social determinant for health and other quality of life outcomes, without acknowledging that discrimination and without celebrating that population?

He’s right, and it’s powerful stuff.

In my former life as the digital lead for communications at the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care in Ontario, we implemented several Social Marketing campaigns. Campaigns focused on Diabetes Prevention, Sexual Health, Suicide Prevention, Smoking Cessation, and much more. In doing that work and participating in the research around that work, it was painfully obvious that individuals in marginalized populations were much more likely to suffer from poor outcomes than individuals in more privileged populations. It was abundantly clear that the best way to communicate with those populations was to include them in development of the work, and make sure their struggles for equality were acknowledged and celebrated in whatever we were doing.

andthebandplayedoncoverWe also talked (tangentially) about the AIDS/HIV crisis of the 1980s. Les cut his teeth in Social Marketing working on public health campaigns in San Francisco right smack dab in the middle of the AIDS crisis. That, in itself is a fascinating history. Have you read And The Band Played On, by Randy Stilts? If you have, you’ll understand the incredible controversies surrounding communications around AIDS in the mid 1980s. That’s where Les got his start. That’s probably one of the reasons he pushes the envelope the way he does. And he, perhaps controversially, cites the AIDS/HIV crisis as the galvanizing force that organized the gay community in the USA in the 1980s, that created the structures the formed the basis of a serious, national activist community, the same community that went on to win marriage equality nearly three decades later.
So, without further rambling, here is the audio recording of my conversation with Les, embedded via SoundCloud. Below are some time-stamped notes, listing highlights in the conversation. Feel free to jump around.

On the beauty of smaller campaigns, 9:53

“I think some of the best work that we’ve been able to do have been on some of the smaller campaigns the more local campaigns because there’s more flexibility and usually the people you’re working with are more connected to the community and they’re more passionate and more compelled. When you start working with bigger institutions and large bureaucracies where there’s a lot of politics it tends to limit what you can do and how creative you can be.”

On Credibility, 24:29

“If you want credibility with an  audience, [if] you want them to listen to you, you have to validate who they are and what their aspirations are and you have to let them know that you’re on the same side, that you want good things for them.”

On Social Media, 41:58

“In social media it’s mostly about people going towards something, gravitating toward something, seeking something out, sharing something. A lot of times what we want to talk to people about are exactly the things that they don’t want to talk about. We’re challenging people, and confronting people about their health, and about things that they’re doing that they don’t want to stop or don’t know how to stop.”

Bringing the message to the audience, 42:49

“We have to bring the message to them, and we can and do it on social media, but its not necessarily the place to do it[…]but we don’t get a lot of people who want to join the anti-diabetes movement or the anti-obesity movement, and the [people] that we want to reach most are exactly the people who wouldn’t be part of something online.”

Working towards a better society, 44:20

“It’s really about treating people with respect and including people and working towards a better society, and having and expressing values that are support people in their freedom [and] their struggles.”

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