Social Marketing & The Pace of Social Change: Thoughts Following the SCOTUS Ruling in Favour of Marriage Equality

ali rahman Blog, In the News


Last week, my Facebook feed took on a rainbow coloured sheen following the SCOTUS ruling in favour of marriage equality. But the elation was tempered by another sentiment; one akin to well yeah, it’s about time.

The sad fact is, social change takes time. I know this, because I’ve worked in and studied Social Marketing; the practice of using marketing techniques to elicit mass behavioural change.

Whether it’s widely recognized or not, aspects of the LGBTQA rights movement have been advanced by social marketing. And though it’s decentralized and broad, the movement’s sustained use awareness, advocacy, public relations, education, destigmatization, grassroots community empowerment and advertising are hallmarks of social marketing.

Look, I’m no expert in the LGBTQA movement, so this post isn’t going to be about it, specifically. I’m hoping to bring some folks much closer to the cause talk about it from a communications point of view in the very near future. For now, I wanted to use it as a launchpad to introduce the concept of Social Marketing.

One Last Thing on LGBTQA Rights Though

I will however say the following on the subject of LGBTQA rights:

  1. Marriage Equality is a victory, that deserves to be celebrated (as it was in pride events across the world this weekend), so in that regard, we’re all rightly ecstatic.
  2. But it’s not the end of the story. Legislation alone does not elicit behaviour change let alone attitudinal change. It accelerates it, but there’s still work to be done before homophobia nothing more than a shameful relic of the past. This is a step.

Why don’t I think the battle for hearts and minds is done yet? Well, it was a pretty partisan, 5-4 ruling and there’s been an outcry about it from the USA’s social-conservative right. I think this Onion Headline sums it up pretty well (satire, but undeniably close to the truth):

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 11.22.07 PM

The erudite folks at The Onion are saying something pretty interesting here; that in spite of the legislative victory, there’s still a lot of work to be done to open hearts and minds. It’s really quite incisive, and what it tells us about Social Marketing is that legislation is only one piece of the puzzle.

Anyhow, on to our explainer post about Social Marketing.

Social Marketing. That’s like, Facebook and Instagram and Twitter Right?

Social Marketing is the practice of using sociology and marketing practices for the purpose of better social outcomes; think Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) or the multitude of safer-sex campaigns from various public health agencies across the world, or this hilarious anti-smoking campaign that (full disclosure, I worked on while at Ontario’s Ministry of Health & Long-Term Care) aims to de-normalize “social smoking”. Put simply, Social Marketing:

  1. Is not social media marketing. Social media marketing is the practice of using social media to sell your service, product or idea. Social media marketing is an aspect of Social Marketing.
  2. Is about using marketing tactics to advance societal outcomes.
  3. Is multidisciplinary, involving a measure of public relations, advocacy, social media, advertising, education, grassroots capacity building and ultimately legislation.
  4. Is fundamentally about behaviour change on a societal scale and as such is connected to clinical schools of psychology like CBT.
  5. The prime directive of Social Marketing is to never stigmatize the individual, just the behaviour.
  6. It’s stuff like this.

Mass social movements like LGBTQA rights, civil rights and women’s suffrage tend to be more decentralized, but nonetheless depend on Social Marketing techniques to build broader public acceptance which eventually leads to legislative change, and (hopefully) mass-attitudinal change.

The History of Social Marketing (& The Pace of Change)

The formal history of Social Marketing as a discipline can be traced back to a paper delivered to the American Psychological Association in 1951 by G.D. Wiebe entitled Merchandising Commodities and Citizenship on Television. It’s an interesting read, mostly because of the explicit connections it draws between marketing and psychology (a subject dear to our hearts here at Fractal). The question he posits (and answers) in the paper can be found in its conclusion:

We may now return to our original question. Can radio and television sell social objectives as they sell soap? On the basis of our discussion we can hazard the following answer: Given a reasonable amount of receptivity among audience members, radio and television can produce forceful motivation. The sponsor of the social objective must tell us what social mechanism the motivation is to be directed. He must see to the existence, adequacy and compatibility of the mechanism and he must consider the distance of audience members from this mechanism in formulating his expectations of results. To the extent that he finds these factors in good order, he is in a situation comparable to that of a commercial sponsor, and he can reasonably expect results comparable with those of a commercial sponsor.

There’s a lot to process in his conclusion. The main takeaway I get is his notion of receptivity and “distance of audience members”. I think that, right there, articulates why social change takes time. That’s why it relies on sustained messaging, where the audience is nudged, nudged, nudged towards progress. It also explains why, when critical mass develops, change then follows pretty quickly.

Here are two interesting graphs tracking the pace of social change in American society. The first, from the New York Times looks at the pace of attitudinal change by observing shifting public opinion on various topics.

Pace of Attitudinal Change NYT/Pew/Gallup

The second, from Bloomberg looks at legislative progress, and demonstrates how quickly law can change once a certain momentum is achieved.

Pace of Legislative Change

Boom. Momentum. What these graphs tell us is that awareness building, public education, small victories and sustained advocacy accumulate towards critical mass, and lead to eventual legislative success. What they don’t really tell us is how long regressive attitudes and behaviours linger in the public consciousness after that. Just look at the unfathomable horror that was the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. A horrific, racist hate-crime occurred in one of the world’s most developed nations, 61 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education ruling ended school segregation and paved the way for the civil rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s. The laws changed, but among certain people, loathsome, regressive attitudes have persisted.

The Practice of Social Marketing

So how can attitudes be shifted? The practice of Social Marketing was formalized by Philip Kotler and Gerald Zaltman in a paper titled Social Marketing: An Approach to Planned Social Change from The Journal of Marketing (1971). It’s a phenomenal read that stands the test of time. It takes a visionary multidisciplinary view that incorporates multi-channel advertising, the inclusion of grassroots local support agencies & advocates, legislative change, research, direct-marketing tactics and public relations; a harmonization of tactics that any marketer, regardless of whether their selling social change or soap, should appreciate.

They even get tactical, mapping out an approach to Social Marketing and using defensive driving as an example. Check it out:

Kotler and Zaltman Social Marketing Process


It’s a brilliant piece of work. One of the most fascinating avenues of discussion is that of pricing, in the context of social change. Hang in there, bit of a digression coming up.

The marketing man’s approach to pricing the social product is based on the assumption that members of the target audience perform a cost-benefit analysis when considering the investment of money, time or energy in the issue. They somehow process the major benefits and compare them to the major costs, and the strength of their motivation is directly related to the magnitude of excess benefit. This type of conceptualization of behaviour is found not only in the economist’s model economic man, but also in behavioristic theory with its emphasis on rewards and costs, in Gestalt theory with its emphasis on positive and negative valences and in management theory with its emphasis on incentives and constraints.

There’s a whole lot to unpack there which I’ll do in future blog posts. Suffice to say, contemporary approaches to Social Marketing (and indeed marketing in general) make fewer assumptions about the influence of the rational brain over decisions. A lot of modern theory points to many purchase decisions being processed by the subconscious, emotional-brain, and only articulated by the conscious, rational brain. But anyhow, I digress.

Kotler and Zaltman cited “brotherhood, safe driving and family planning” as causes that could be affected by Social Marketing in the paper, and the intervening years proved them right. In the decades since the publication of this article there have been hundreds of award winning Social Marketing campaigns tackling subjects as varied as sexual health, smoking cessation, texting and driving, domestic violence, drinking and driving, drug-related harm reduction, depression & mental health, sexual violence, obesity and diabetes, LGBTQA discrimination and so, so many others.

Here’s a few fairly recent campaigns that can broadly be categorized as Social Marketing endeavours from Vocativ.

Bottom Line: Social Marketing Supports Social Progress

The point is, in the years following Kotler and Zaltman, the practice of Social Marketing exploded, and was adopted by governments and grassroots organizations around the world. Just think, there was a time when drinking and driving was normal. There was a time when not wearing seatbelts was normal. There was a time when depression was a private thing you didn’t talk about or seek help for. There was a time when smoking was not perceived as unhealthy. There was a time when the concepts of sexual or domestic violence were not part of the cultural consciousness.

None of these social problems have been completely solved, but there is broader awareness that they exist, and less stigma for individuals seeking support to overcome them. That’s always been the crux of Social Marketing: don’t stigmatize the individual, but help them identify the problem, then help them solve it: acceptance, awareness, education and action.

Marketers, Let’s Do Our Bit: A Call to Action.

In all likelihood, if you’ve read this post this far, you’re involved in marketing in some way. So this is my call-to-action; we’ve got skills. We know how to communicate to varied audiences. We know how to elicit behaviour change. Let’s do our best to keep using our skills to benefit the greater good. Avinash Kaushik, the genius behind the See, Think, Do marketing framework just posted this following the SCOTUS ruling:

Avinash FB Post


He’s huge. He’s operating in the USA. He’s got a lot to lose speaking out so earnestly in solidarity of the LGBTQA community. And he did anyway. If he can do it, we can all do it.

We as marketers get to decide which side of history we’re going to be on. One day, the social issues we consider contentious today will be no-brainers. Our prejudices and lack of social equality will be viewed by future generations in the same way we look at morally abhorrent practices like slavery. Whether it’s via pro-bono work or volunteer work or sliding scale or solidarity or inclusion of diversity in our creative or refusal to work with unethical companies or just personal advocacy, let’s do our best to use our powers for good.

Because, while SCOTUS’ ruling on marriage equality was a victory, there are many more victories to be had. To borrow from The Onion again, Only 47,000 Social Justice Milestones To Go Before U.S. Acheives Full Equality.

only 47000 to go