Leading Horses to Water – the Role of Advertising

Clara Jacob asks at the Post Haste blog why advertising alone can’t change behavior:

Is this true? With advertising we can get people to eat candy bars. But we can’t get them to drive the speed limit. Neuter their pets. Stop using meth.

Why is this? We did a direct mail piece recently, which included a coupon for a dollar off a gallon of milk and 5 cents off each gallon of gas. It got a 60 percent response. That’s phenomenal. It changed the behavior of hundreds of people. They went to stores and purchased milk and gas.

Couldn’t “social marketing,” as it’s called in the nonprofit world, change behavior equally well?

Or, as Wiebe asked about 50 years ago, “why can’t you sell brotherhood like you sell soap?” Yes, we can use the same tools, but people do not change their complex health and social behaviors as easily as buying a $3 carton of milk. Advertising is only one piece of what needs to be considered in a social marketing program, and if the other necessary components are not there to back up the advertising, the campaign will not be successful.

Quoting myself from the comments:

The important role that advertising can play is in raising awareness that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, or in helping an individual realize that they are personally at risk if they do not adopt the behavior being promoted. Advertising can create an environment in which the target audience develops a favorable impression of the “product” (ie the behavior) and begins to see it as socially acceptable and desirable.

But for an everyday lifestyle change (e.g., eating in a healthy way) or even an occasional but emotionally difficult behavior (e.g., getting an HIV test), advertising does not always offer enough personal support to lead someone to take action. That usually takes interpersonal communication from an influential person like a doctor, friend, family member or even a knowledgeable and caring person on the other side of a telephone hotline.

Advertising can lead the horse to water, but whether the horse drinks 8 glasses a day is another question.

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