Marketing vs advertising for social issues

Yesterday I was at TEDxChange Amsterdam and it was fantastic. The local Amsterdam team is truly amazing and they organized a huge event that lasted from 3PM until 11 or so. A few reasons for my amazement at these guys and gals: a) they are all volunteers (nobody gets paid a dime to be there, they spend weeks if not more organizing, searching for sponsors, venues, building the speakers lists, the guests lists, coordinating everything, etc.) b) in spite of the fact that they are all volunteers, the event was better organized and way more impressive than many corporate events I have attended. I am surprised that some private corporation has not snapped the whole team yet because, honestly, they are more professional and better prepared that some companies I have had to deal with in the past.

The local speakers were an interesting bunch and I think they had a great mix of local and non local initiatives. I really am fond of the stuff Boldewijn Sloet is doing with Barefoot Power, a company trying to bring solar powered lamps to replace the current kerosene lighting that is used in many rural areas around the world. I think his heart is really in the right place and he has managed to put together something that is both life changing (I didn’t know that in India alone there are 2.5 million people – 350,000 of them children, badly burnt due to kerosene lamps per year) and achievable at the same time.

At the beginning of the event, the live broadcast from United Nations featured a talk by Melinda Gates where she gave the highlights of her work through the Gates Foundation. She is an extremely impressive woman and certainly a force to reckon. However, there was one point in which I was sort of disappointed in: her views on what she called “aspirational marketing for social causes”. I understand the arrogance of disagreeing and even writing about said disagreement with one of the most powerful women on the planet, but I don’t think my disagreement is ideological, but more of a semantic one. What sort of bothered me a bit was the lack of distinction and oversimplification between what she referred to as “marketing” and what is indeed, nothing more than advertising. Advertising is just a slice in the marketing pie, nothing more than an instrument in getting the message out there, but marketing, particularly social marketing is much more than that. Sure, I agree with her that social marketing (and the talk by Mechai Viravaidya, the thai social marketer with a track record of success after success in social issues in Thailand was precisely about that) should perhaps improve on the way the messages are delivered (the advertising part), however, a marketing campaign should not be reduced to just the delivery of the messages. A good social marketing campaign would:

  • avoid colonial language (can we stop using “the poor” when referring to people living in certain structural conditions? I doubt a person would be receptive to a message that defines them through their living conditions, which they are not in control of due to said structural issues)
  • avoid what I like to call “the helpless rhetoric” (in addition to referring to people as “the poor”, the usual delivery of messages includes the kind of prose that addresses fully functioning adults as if they were children)
  • avoid treating “the poor” and “the helpless” as if they were one uniform mass of people (segmentation matters, especially when there are other socio cultural issues at play, just because a campaign is directed at disadvantaged groups, it doesn’t mean those groups are identical in all respects)
  • avoid fragmentation of social issues (how many campaigns to stop climate change are there out there? how many campaigns to prevent HIV? how many initiatives to improve maternal health? A successful initiative is one that targets a specific community, that addresses the issues of that specific community and not one that further contributes to the social initiatives fatigue)
  • avoid cultural preconceptions to get in the way of message delivery (better said, research your market! this, of course, is tied to the first point about “colonial language”)

I understand that these points are not necessarily easy to present in a ten minute talk aimed at a global audience. However, because so many of the audience members were social activists and people involved in Millennium Goals initiatives, I believe it is an important distinction to make.

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