Marketing and advertising are often 'dirty words', signifying someone trying to sell something to someone else that they don't really need. However, according to a leading communications expert, effective marketing can be good for our health.
Prof Jeff French, a global expert on health communication, addressed a recent heart health conference in Galway on marketing the concept of disease prevention; in other words, how do you sell the benefits of a healthy lifestyle to an uninterested public?
Most public health campaigns informing, and sometimes lecturing, people about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are viewed by many as boring, and are often largely ignored.
Prof French's key message is that policy-makers and opinion-leaders need to radically rethink how health initiatives are 'sold' to the public, in order to improve their chance of success.
He believes 'social marketing' should play a central role in all social policy, including health policy. Social marketing is defined as an approach used to develop activities aimed at changing people's behaviour for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole.
The need to adopt social marketing thinking, Prof French says, is particularly important in view of the major challenges involved in implementing medical treatments and health policy.
He puts the scale of the into perspective, pointing out that treating diabetes alone in future years could bankrupt health services unless successful public health disease prevention initiatives are implemented.
This, he points out, could help stop people getting seriously ill in the first place and save a great deal in terms of human misery and healthcare costs.
He says people in the commercial sector will tell you that marketing is ultimately not about selling people things they don't want, but about satisfying people's needs and responding to them.
Prof French says if people need to be persuaded to behave in a different way, some value has to be created for them in doing his.
Citizens want to become part of the solution to health and social problems, and those in positions to influence need to recognise this. "It is not up to us to simply tell them what to do because we think they're stupid. Our job is to help them do the thing they want to do."
Key facets of this are creating value for people, empowering them, using citizen-focused strategies, developing smart and achievable behavioural goals dictated by theory, evidence and data, and building and sustaining relationships with citizens, partners and stakeholders, Prof French says.
Explaining how social marketing works, he poses the question - why do so many people in Copenhagen use bicycles? Do they do it to save the environment or to reduce their heart disease and stroke risk factors?
No, they do it because it is faster, easier, more convenient and it gives them independence. This, Prof French said, indicates that you do not encourage cycling by simply saying it's good for the environment and your heart.
This type of marketing, he said should therefore focus on what people want rather than what we think they need, in order to achieve health or social policy goals.
Health policy-makers therefore, need to reframe what they are offering. People put more value, he says, on things they can get now, rather than some benefit they may or may not achieve at some distant point in the future.
This can be expressed in different ways. It can be personal value to the individual, but also social value - people appreciating that they are helping their family or their community. It can also have environmental and economic value.
As another example of health initiatives that are seen to provide real and immediate value to participants, he gives the example of a breakfast club for schoolchildren in Greenwich, near London.
It was found that many of the children were arriving at school not having eaten anything, but after setting up a breakfast club to provide them with healthy food and nourishment, it was found that nobody was participating.
Children were asked about this, and they said they felt if they attended the club, people would think their parents did not look after them properly or that they were poor.
So the club's emphasis was changed to a music club, where children were asked to come and listen to the latest music, during which breakfast would be served. As a result, practically every child started attending the club.
The emphasis should be on creating health and social initiatives that inspire, engage and enable people, rather than just dictating to them what they should be doing.
Prof French says policy-makers can take initiatives such as introducing sugar and fatty food taxes. The trouble is, unless there is popular consent on these measures, once there is a change of Government, these laws can get repealed.
Simply telling people they are wrong is not the right or complete approach. A better approach is to give people a means to do what they are already doing a little better, he says. People, he adds, generally find official Government health interventions boring and dull and these initiatives tend to have limited success.
Alternative ways of doing things include introducing cheap membership of gyms or canteens providing an express checkout for healthy products. An Icelandic children's TV programme called Lazy Town, run in partnership with the Government and private sector, has proved to be a great success in many countries in making exercise popular and more attractive to children.
Health initiatives can also use concrete incentives to get people to change their behaviour. The NHS in Dundee, for example, gave people financial incentives to quit smoking.
This, says Prof French, not only gave participants a positive incentive to change their behaviour, but also gave them a dialogue that they could use with their peers on why they were stopping smoking. In other words, people could understand why their peers were quitting when they were told that there was a cash incentive involved, rather than hearing the usual message which they might simply dismiss as people giving in to the ‘Nanny State' telling them what to do.
He says citizen focus was very important. Health policy makers do not put enough research effort into understanding the people they are seeking to help. They need to understand what people are thinking, what they think will help and not help them, what they are afraid of, what motivates them.
If this is not understood, and policy-makers do not start acting to some extent like marketers, public health interventions will not work.
Prof French says social marketing principles can be successfully applied to the implementation of health and a social policy.
He says social marketing can help design programmes to change people's beliefs and attitudes; can change behaviour and sustain that change; it can improve health service uptake; it can ultimately reduce demand on services; it can impact on therapeutic compliance; it can increase the uptake rates of interventions and it can build trust and engagement among the public.
Basically, he says, more effort needs to go into policy makers listening and understanding, rather than simply telling people what to do.
Prof French was addressing a recent conference on prevention organised by the National Institute for Preventive Cardiology in Galway.
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