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Professor Dinesh Kumar explains how his work with Dr. Punam Gupta uses the lure of a free magic show to introduce Indian children to benefits of handwashing. Credit: QMUL SBM.

Last week, Queen Mary University of London hosted a conference on social marketing and behaviour change. The participants spoke of a wide range of social goals, but were all united by enthusiasm for the power and promise of social marketing.

We first heard from Professor Gerard Hastings about how large corporations are using marketing to sell products and lifestyles that are fundamentally not good for society.  He suggests that social marketers have a responsibility to produce the counter-messages to this bad marketing (otherwise known as ‘propaganda’, as Professor Paul Baines pointed out). Combined with a population armed with critical thinking skills, and a sector that is properly regulated against ill-spirited salespeople, Prof. Hastings argues that social marketing is the key to solving the consumerist ills of society. Professor Chris Hackley then spoke of the effect that tongue-in-cheek messaging has in enabling anti-social and destructive drinking behaviours. This highlighted just how important critical thinking skills are for recognising the manipulative nature of shameless messages such as ‘Our lame legal guys made us warn you not to feed this to kids, up the duff women or the weak who just can’t tolerate it.’ Dr. Jennifer Ball then described the heavily regulated world of US pharmaceutical advertising. She showed us how many pharma ads in the US are very good at technically meeting their legal obligations. However, that these ads appear to try to to make it difficult for the consumer to see the facts that the law demands are presented can have an effect on people’s’ perception of risk. Have a look at the example Dr. Ball used (for a drug that can suppress your rheumatoid arthritis¹) and let us know what you think in the comments section below this article. In these situations, counter messaging will be more successful if assisted by well-meaning regulation that prohibits bad marketing/propaganda.

In addition to those presentations mentioned above, we also heard about a range of subjects including:

  • the use gamification to encourage electric vehicles use
  • helping homeowners invest in natural hazard protection
  • building handwashing habits in Indian children
  • how negative emotional appeals can affect the outcomes of social marketing
  • the driving forces behind consumers’ decisions to boycott certain organisations
  • the use of marketing by Al-Qaeda and ISIS

The conference was organised by Dr. Danae Manika on behalf of the QMUL School of Business and Management and the British Academy of Management. On why she arranged the event Dr. Manika said, “It was an opportunity to bring together researchers and practitioners interested in social marketing and behaviour change initiatives and link up and share their ideas.” In the morning session I teamed up with Dr. Victoria Wells to discuss this need in the context of my organisation Global Action Plan (GAP). At GAP we work with researchers including Dr. Manika and Dr. Wells. This ensures our programmes have access to social marketing expertise while giving researchers such as Dr. Manika and Dr. Wells the opportunity to examine real world social marketing in practise. To paraphrase Prof. Hastings, ‘cavemen learnt a long time ago that working together results in much better outcomes than working alone’ ²(Axelrod and Hamilton, 1981). We would do well to follow that lead. In that spirit, ESMA is looking to collaborate in similar events in the future. Is that something you would be interested in? Do you think you could help in some way?

If you would like to know more about any of these projects let us know at info@europeansocialmarketing.org

By Dr David McElroy

Researcher at the behaviour change charity Global Action Plan


¹and immune system. How do you feel about tuberculosis? No one gets that anymore, am I right?!

²Axelrod, R & Hamilton, WD (1981) The Evolution of Cooperation, Science 211(4489):1390-1396.