The Legacy of Social Marketing for Attitude and Behaviour Change

I recently read an article by Margaret Wente columnist at the Globe and Mail titled The world’s nicest, most law-abiding generation

It got me thinking about the impact that social marketers have had on society since the early 70’s. I am not suggesting that social marketers can take credit for all the changes we have seen over the past 40 years but there is no question social marketers have made a contribution in changing attitudes and behaviours and contributing to a better society.

In the article, Wente states that if you watch a few episodes of Mad Men, sexism and homophobia were rampant. Women faced rampant discrimination and were sexual prey. Everybody drank and smoked all the time. People thought nothing of driving drunk. One of the most shocking scenes showed Don and Betty Draper and their kids going on a picnic – and leaving their garbage strewn all over the grass.

No question that social norms have changed since the 60’s. Since the introduction of social marketing in the early seventies there has been a change in attitudes toward everything from sexism and human rights to littering. Wente states that by almost any measure you can find, people across the developed world today are the least violent, most law-abiding, hardest-working and most tolerant generation who ever lived.

Public disorder of the nuisance variety is also at an all-time low. Spitting, littering, queue-jumping, smoking, urinating and picking your nose in public are all regarded as disgusting behaviours. Even “man-spreading” is now frowned upon.

Kids today tend to be more conscientious and well-behaved. They don’t rebel the way the boomers of the “60’s” did. They get along with their parents and other adults. They do their homework, play organized sports and get involved in many charitable endeavours. They practice safe sex, and seldom get pregnant. Tobacco and alcohol use among youth has declined dramatically. In particular, there has been a decrease in binge drinking.

Consider how we’ve raised the bar on other standards of behaviour. For example, corporal punishment is now unacceptable. Although the problem of bullying gets massive, nationwide attention our children are safer now than they’ve ever been, yet we’re so concerned about protecting them that we’ve demolished playgrounds, equipped the kids with helmets and other protective gear (e.g. compare the gear kids wear today for roller blading to what my generation wore to go roller skating). In addition we made sure that our kids are never out of our sight. Leave your kid alone for five minutes in the car or allow your kids to walk around the block by themselves and someone is likely to report you to the authorities. Do parents let their kids go out on the street or park to play without supervision? I guess the child security message has been overdone.

For the most part sexual harassment has decreased at the workplace significantly unless you work for a military type organization. (Along with heavy drinking connected to work events). Even in the most masculine industries, the stereotype of the corporate bully has all but disappeared. Today, any boss who abuses his position – or other people – will quickly find himself unemployed.

What explains this progress in conduct and morality is hard to say as there are many factors. Wente quotes Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker who argues that they are simply the continuation of a long-term evolution in behaviour that began centuries ago. Since medieval times, Northern Europeans have gradually grown less cruel, less violent, and more self-restrained… think Vikings. As a society we became more complex, society rewarded people who were more diligent, prudent and mild-mannered, and punished people with poor impulse control.

This may be true, but the barrage of social marketing messages aimed at various audiences in society, especially youth through the media both social and traditional has certainly had an impact.

Quite a legacy!

Let me know what you think.

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Introduction to Social Marketing Planning for Behaviour Change

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