The Age of Persuasion
Let’s start at the beginning again, shall we? Before social marketing was defined as a discipline in 1971, social marketing tactics had already been implemented in India to promote birth control because “a persuasion-based approach was favored over a legislative approach”, says Les Pappas, founder of Better World Advertising. Pappas asserted that while several legislative and policy initiatives can be adopted to impact behavior, the fundamental role of social marketing is to “encourage people to make changes on their own”. He says social marketing is “not about forcing people to make changes, it’s more focused on showing people that certain behaviors are more in their own self-interest or for the greater good than others, and helping them make [those] changes”. Of course, such an approach works best in tandem with effective policy changes. Pappas cited tobacco as an example, where taxation made smoking less financially attractive and legislative changes banned smoking in public places, all of which functioned in conjunct with decades-long social marketing efforts to help individuals reconsider the habit. He points to the fact that by 2009, smoking had fallen to 13%, a 42% decrease since 1988 as a measure of success.
But such alignment isn’t always the case. Pappas’ talk offered a sobering view of the challenges facing social marketers in the United States, where policy is often driven from the top-down and shifts with the will of the executive branch.
Pappas’ talk stood out among presenters, as he was the only speaker to really focus on the obstacles often encountered by social marketers, be they lack of funding, lack of political will or outright censorship.
I called Les Pappas in his New York office (he has agencies on both coasts) to talk about being a social marketer in the United States of America.
What are some of the differences between working with non-profits, NGOs and Governments?
I think the differences are pretty dramatic. Most of the NGOs we work with are on the small side and I think a lot of it has to do with size. If you’re working with an organization that has 10-100 people that’s very different than working for a huge state or federal agency that has thousands of employees.
We also work with small, local government agencies (city and county health departments). Small organizations mean less bureaucracy, fewer rules and they tend to be less political. They also allow easier access to the people you’re working with and fewer levels of hierarchy. Typically, people that you’re dealing with in smaller organizations are the decision makers
In large government organizations, oftentimes the people that we’re working with don’t have the authority to make decisions. It goes up and up and up and up. Sometimes it goes up to people who are really rather detached from the whole process.
How do the politics effect your business? Are you ever asked to outright stop a campaign?
Sure. It really does depend on the political winds that are blowing. We work with a number of large state health departments in particular, and one state in particular had a very conservative governor, and we were working on AIDS prevention. This administration didn’t want to deal with HIV or AIDS. They didn’t see it as priority, I think they probably saw it as a distraction. And then that administration changed, and we were at it again.
Don’t public health issues like HIV trump political whims?
Well, HIV is rife with moral interpretations and debates. We had a campaign that was running in Albany NY and it was aimed at African American gay men. Because it dealt with sex and homosexuality people started complaining. They didn’t want their kids exposed to lifestyles and sexual activities they see as wrong. They’re anti-gay, they’re homophobic and they want to control how their families are exposed to those issues.
Did you get pushback from the black community as well?
Doesn’t that prove a point?
Yes absolutely. I think I talked about the culture war. The USA is a very divided country. A lot of it is along these moral issues. A lot of it is based in people’s religious beliefs. And they don’t want their tax dollars going to something they don’t approve of.
It’s not unlike the abortion issue, where you have these pitched battles where both sides are saying we don’t approve of this and we don’t want our government putting resources into it. It’s the same thing with HIV. A lot of people feel like “people know how to avoid HIV, if they don’t assess the risks, they should know better, it’s their problem. Then there’s this whole question of sexual orientation in the society. We’re fighting about whether gays can serve in the military, we’re fighting about gay marriage, we’re fighting about all sorts of things. And some people are simply opposed to any recognition from the government of those kinds of lifestyles.
Well, we debate that in certain circles… The forum that I was at last night was about social marketing and the NYC deptartment of public health put out an ad campaign in December that was specifically targeted to gay men and it was an HIV prevention ad. And a lot of people within the gay community felt like they were showing gay men in a negative light. So we have those tensions within the community.
I suppose the question is, what is the place of HIV in the gay community? I think it’s undeniably a major issue in a way that it isn’t for the rest of the population, you know if you look at the prevalence.
You know, we did a campaign a while ago in Los Angeles called HIV Is A Gay Disease. And people went ballistic. It got a national response. Coverage all around the country. People within the gay community said we’ve been fighting for years trying to get people to understand that HIV is NOT a gay disease and it affects everyone.
And that was sort of the problem. We had convinced ourselves that it wasn’t a gay disease. We convinced ourselves that it was somebody else’s disease. That it was drug users that it was people in Africa.
The tag line was Own it, End it. I think that it’s not only a gay disease, but it clearly is our disease, that we as gay men have to take on and own and deal with. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think if we don’t do that, then we’re not going to
address it successfully.
How do you measure success on a campaign like that?
I wouldn’t underestimate the value of this qualitative process/outcomes that we can measure. If you’re getting a lot of press coverage, web traffic, YouTube views, that is a good measure of some things, it is a measure of the reach of the campaign and the level of engagement. You know when we talk social media that’s all people talk
On the other end there is actual outcome evaluation, which is really important. Is the campaign really working beyond the fact that you’ve gotten all this attention. The trick is to leverage a campaign so you do get that earned media and you do get that buzz but not just for the sake of it, it has to lead to something in terms of behaviour change, so that has to be measured in whatever ways it can be measured. We survey people after a campaign is done (and obviously it’s self reported) but we ask them did you see it? What did you think about it? How did it impact how you think?
That kind of evaluation is important to see if it really did work.
Do you think there is sometimes too much emphasis on post-campaign measurement?
That also gets very political. I think that when government gets involved they put a lot of expectations and demands on these campaigns including evaluation, and I think there is kind of a losing sight of the real world. We know when we talk to people what they say, and we can observe a lot, and that gets discounted, because people in government, they need data, they need the numbers to stand behind to defend their programs and choices, and I think there can be an over-reliance on that. Where sometimes it becomes almost more important than the project itself.
My background in social marketing is the HIV epidemic in the mid-eighties. Social marketing was in its infancy. We didn’t have a lot of information. but we were responding to a crisis and we relied on a lot of intuition, creativity, and the word on the street, a lot of stuff that is hard to quantify.
Social marketing is part science and part art. When we abandon our intuition and humanistic qualities, it becomes something else.
Earlier you spoke about how the USA is a deeply divided country these days. Just curious, is there a right-wing equivalent for social marketing? All of the campaigns I can think of lean liberal.
I think there is an equivalent, I was in Atlanta (and Austin Texas) last month, and in both trips, driving from airport to hotel, I saw a lot of billboards that were espousing these conservative positions. You know, pro-life/anti-abortion stuff. I mean, I guess that’s social marketing. They’re going billboards, they’re on the street heanding out leaflets, they’re building websites.
I’d say the same thing around guns. Obviously there’s the NRA and they have their lobbying arm, but you know, they do campaigns.