On My Desk: Using social marketing to save the world

By Dr. Phil Molloy

When I was growing up, my brother and I used to watch movies about Gangland America. An odd choice for two English country bumpkins, but true nonetheless. One of my favourite quotes from those films is from John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. Doughboy — Ice Cube’s character — explains why people don’t deal with the problems in his 'hood: “Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the 'hood.” 

This is my explanation for why the environmental problems facing our seas are, if anything, getting worse. That is, either people don’t know how bad things are, they do know how bad things are but pretend not to because that would be tantamount to admitting they are partly responsible, or they just don’t give a monkey’s.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I hope so. But humour me for a minute and assume I’m right. How, then, do we deal with this depressing situation? This question has come up in a paper some colleagues and I are currently writing. We’ve been considering the role of social marketing in changing people’s behaviour. One of the most thought-provoking papers I’ve read on the topic is "Promoting Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing," a seminal article by the psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr, written over a decade ago.  

McKenzie-Mohr explains how we can use social marketing to promote sustainable behaviour. First, he says, of all the things that people could do that would be ‘greener’ than their typical day-to-day behaviours, what would be the most strategic to promote? That is, what behaviour is really going to make a difference? Once we’ve figured out what we want to promote, we need to establish what stops people from adopting these ‘good’ behaviours in the first place. This, in part, is where you solve Doughboy’s conundrum.

You’re determining whether the obstacle is that people don’t know, don’t show, or don’t care. Once you’ve figured this out, you must then work out the best ways to overcome the particular obstacle you face. These basic steps allow a prototype campaign to be designed. Before leaping into a full-blown social-marketing scheme, McKenzie-Mohr strongly advocates running a pilot campaign to check our proposed strategy will work. If the campaign doesn’t prompt the changes in behaviour hoped for, it should be tweaked and re-trialed until success is achieved. 

A good example of a successful social marketing campaign comes from Nova Scotia. To paraphrase the study: 

The provincial government announced a ban on all organic materials from landfills and tasked municipalities throughout the province with developing initiatives to increase composting. In one of the counties, local officials conducted survey research to identify local barriers to backyard composting and determine present levels of the practice. The survey showed that a surprisingly high number of residents were already composting — about 56%. The survey also showed that, among the people who did not compost, many perceived the practice as inconvenient and unpleasant, and lacked the basic knowledge about how to do it.

As part of a pilot program, campaign planners decided to leverage these already high levels of backyard composting by asking local residents who composted to do two things: 1) place a decal on the side of their blue box or garbage container indicating to their neighbours that they were committed to composting, thereby making the practice more visible and more socially acceptable; and 2) encourage neighbours to compost by speaking directly to them about it. Most local residents who composted were happy to place the decal on their bins, but very few were willing to talk to their neighbours. The failure of the second initiative underscored the need for piloting strategies before broad implementation.

Residents who did not compost but expressed an interest in the practice were visited instead by city employees who provided information about how to do it cleanly and effectively. Several months later, 80% of these residents were composting regularly in their backyards. The result of the social marketing campaign was a significant increase in backyard composting and a decrease in organic waste flowing into Nova Scotia’s landfills.

In Doughboy’s terms, an environmental social marketing campaign is a way to make sure that people do know, do show and do care about what’s going on in their ’hoods. But a good campaign will go further — it will make sure that people get stuck in and do something to make a difference.