Social Marketing Can Play a Role in Preventing Childhood Obesity

Graciano Petersen, M.A.

Tobacco and alcoholic beverage companies are well recognized for their ability to use mass media to promote the consumption of their products. The successful campaigns of these companies exemplify how a marketing tool such as mass media can convincingly encourage consumers to purchase a certain product.

While the primary goal of general marketing is financial gain, the primary goal of social marketing is to benefit society. In the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Alan Andreasen defines social marketing as the application of commercial marketing technologies to the analysis, planning execution, and evaluation of programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences in order to improve their personal welfare and that of their society. Studies have shown that social marketing can effectively influence behavioral change and should be used in programs to encourage healthier eating among children

In response to studies reporting that in the United States an estimated one in six children are overweight, several national organizations, and various local community groups, have undertook the task of getting America’s children to be more active and to eat better. The challenge however is to inspire overweight children to eat better without making them feel self-conscious and lectured about being “chubby.”

Elaine Murphy expressed in Health Bulletin that effective social marketing trends are born from the ideas that have been successful in the past.  Although social marketing began in the 1970s with the idea of promoting behavioral change by maintaining customer engagement with the benefit of a societal good, it has become more commonplace in the last decade. One of the most memorable social marketing campaigns is the Truth Campaign and its goal to prevent young people from using tobacco. This campaign has a clear societal goal that can be measured by the number of new underage smokers each year.

In trying to promote healthy eating to children, the first goal is not to target children who are already overweight, but to encourage all young children to eat better in an effort to stem the growing epidemic. In doing so, one must not only target the children, but also their parents. Children’s eating habits are limited by the options their caregivers provide them. Eating healthy has to be “in.”

The CDC’s response to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity has been more noteworthy than other approaches. The CDC is promoting for healthier eating habits in order to curb the health issues associated with being overweight as children, including cardiovascular disease, asthma and sleep apnea. The CDC embraced social marketing strategies as a way to educate the populace on the importance of proper eating and exercise and to provide tools for parents to encourage their children to eat better. The CDC has also created a website and games just for kids that teaches them about healthy habits. To keep on pace with the flashier commercial food marketers, the CDC designed a cartoon character to be the symbol of their healthy eating campaign known as Power Panther.

What the CDC has done can serve as an astounding template for other businesses to follow. Their marketing strategy not only targets overweight and obese children, but also their parents, teachers, cooks and healthy-weight children. Their efforts demonstrate a multi-pronged approach that illustrates successful social marketing techniques including having multiple strategies based on various consumer stages and using many tools coordinately to distribute and promote their message.

As the marketing possibilities continue to increase due to expanding technology, so will the social marketing strategies to prevent childhood obesity. The CDC may decide to expand its presence on social media sites to spread their message of social good. Since social marketing has proved useful in stemming other bad habits, behavioral specialists will continue to expand its avenues of dispersion. Specialists hope to use social marketing strategies to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, reduce child mortality and combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases.

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