Social Marketing is a Scam

The book Social Marketing: Why Should the Devil Have All The Best Tunes? by Gerard Hastings is all about the notion that traditional marketing concepts can and should be applied to promoting socially desirable behavior. This is called “social marketing.” The book has a laundry list of case studies on everything from cancer prevention to safe driving to junk food advertising, racism, suicide, obesity, diabetes and more.

My question is, why do we need the term “social marketing” at all? Marketing is marketing, whether you’re selling soap or reduced fat consumption.

The author writes that “social marketing is not just valuable—it is a matter of life and death.” (p. 4) Well, social marketing may be powerful. But in the end it’s just the same thing as marketing itself. This word “social” makes it sound like something different, but it’s not.

If you ask me, I think someone developed the term “social marketing” as just another way to sell books. But what’s really offensive about it is that the discipline seeks some kind of moral high ground, when it’s doing the same thing as every marketer does. The author writes: “These twin notions of both learning from and scrutinizing commercial marketing are encapsulated in the concept of social marketing.” I don’t see any scrutiny going on in the critical sense; rather the traditional marketing discipline is being looked at to see how its principles and practices can be applied to drive systemic social change.

And I have to say that I find it troubling, this term called “social” marketing. As if one can uncritically accept any and all agendas for social change as positive. For although the causes described in the book are generally undebatable in terms of their contribution to a better world, I think there is a fine line between promoting a better world and promoting one’s political or personal agenda for that world. Take obesity for example. In promoting a world where overweight is vilified, aren’t we also driving people toward eating disorders who may otherwise have been satisfied with living at a slightly higher weight than is usual? Or on a related note, fat consumption. There are arguments to be made on both sides of the coin, that fat is good and bad for you. Or how about sugar-free medicine? The social marketing case being made in the book is that eliminating sugar in medicine is an uncritically positive move, but some would argue that sugar substitutes are dangerous and should not be used. So we need to be careful about who gets to define what “social marketing” is—and that seems to me to be a somewhat political matter.

In the end, marketing is marketing and branding is branding. Let’s focus on the discipline and making it better, not on the idea of whose marketing agenda is “right” and “good.” If we have to use another term for "social marketing," I vastly prefer "cause marketing" as this term doesn't imply the rightness of the cause.