Does social marketing has a place in alcohol strategy?

In alcohol policy discussion social marketing does´nt usually get much attention and it is not viewed as something very wise to invest into. There is a reason for that kind of position. Evidence does´nt show that it has a real potential in changing the way people behave. At least in most cases. And at least not by itself.

WHO publication “Evidence for the effectiveness and cost–effectiveness of interventions to reduce alcohol-related harm” says that “Providing information and education is important to raise awareness and impart knowledge, but, particularly in an environment in which many competing messages are received in the form of marketing and social norms supporting drinking, and in which alcohol is readily accessible, do not lead to sustained changes in alcohol-related behaviour.

But then it goes on by saying that “education can, however, be a tool for awareness and raising support, and an important feature of a broader alcohol strategy.

So perhaps the problem is with our wrong expectations. We should learn to view social marketings role in that broader alcohol strategy. And if it has a certain place in that, would´nt it be dangerous to just set aside as something ineffective?!

To introduce and implement an effective alcohol policy we need to convince policy makers but in order to get their attention we also need to reach public interest and for that we cant ignore the role of mass media.

Yes, after seeing an alcohol awareness public service announcement clip while watching a movie at home, a person might not put down his or hers glass of wine but they might say that “hey, something should be done about this problem”. And also that kind of passive support for interventions are needed. It is important, at least in some countries, that people would´nt oppose alcohol policy measures. Already that would be a huge step forward.

This is one thing that social marketing could do – motivate people to think that alcohol problem is something more than just individuals issue. That someone should somehow intervene. Sounds vague? But that is a basis and a starting point for change. An alcohol awareness campaign could be a wake-up call. Even if it makes people to argue against that message. It can create public discussion, open dialogue.

But sure, it can also have negative consequences. First, if it is used as an alternative to much more effective measures and secondly, if it is done poorly with bad quality. Both happen frequently. Tax raise could bring negative results as well – if its not enforced or it just would´nt get collected or a black market could get a boost out of that. But either of these prove that taxes are not effective in reducing drinking. It proves that every change has to be implemented and enforced properly with guaranteeing a support from majority of people.

“Mass media campaigns have been part of successful packages of policy strategies. Their role can be to raise awareness of the issues and increase the legitimacy of policy strategies being put in place, such as increased law enforcement,” wrote dr Linda Hill from the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

Marketing and mass media seems to belong to the industries, by far not only to alcohol business. And they know for sure that they depend on that kind of publicity. Their companies and products have to be visible and talked about. You are visible or you don´t exist. And they do their work brilliantly. That´s also why we may conclude that this area belongs to them.

But in recent years we have seen more and more how public health NGO-s are challenging that kind of thinking. IQ from Sweden with its “How smooth is that?” or Fragile Childhood from Finland with their “Monsters” campaign have gone viral and the whole world is talking about them.

NordAN has decided to focus among other topics on the role of social marketing and the network is organizing a special seminar on March 14 in Helsinki. Come and explore with us. More HERE.

Lauri Beekmann is Secretary General of NordAN