Marketing a change of behaviour

Advancing Society and Culture

Dr Josh Newton says there’s “probably tons of definitions” to describe social marketing, but essentially it’s about encouraging good behaviour.

“I try to explain it as using marketing techniques to encourage socially desirable behaviours. These are behaviours that benefit society in general and the individual in particular,” he said.

Dr Newton is a senior research fellow in Deakin Business School’s Department of Marketing, but, with a PhD in psychology, he said, marketing wasn’t his original career goal.

“I originally had a somewhat sceptical view of marketing. However, during my honours studies, I realised it can play a beneficial role in society and it crossed my personal research interests and values.

“I really like the fact that you can use marketing techniques to bring about beneficial changes in society. So now I’ve done a 180 degree turn and am a fully-fledged member of the marketing brigade!”

Focusing on the areas of health, environmental sustainability and consumer behaviour, Dr Newton is currently working on a range of experimental social marketing strategies.

“We’re testing basic principles to see whether they work – and this is the fun of being a researcher, because you get to tease apart a particular psychological process and see what effects these processes have on behaviour,” he explained.

One of his projects involves looking at “anthropomorphising the self” – and, while that may sound esoteric, it’s actually the stuff of cartoons and Pixar movies.

“Anthropomorphism is when you assign human characteristics to a non-human entity,” he said. “Take a cuddly bear that’s a sport club mascot. Because it has human characteristics, you will perceive it more positively. What no one’s ever really thought about is whether you can anthropomorphise an aspect of yourself.”

He is examining how “anthropomorphising the self” can encourage consumers to adopt healthy or positive behaviours.

For example, if a liver is drawn with a smiley face and then animatedly talks about how it is affected by excessive alcohol, then suddenly the health message is delivered from the perspective of the anthropomorphised organ.

“It’s a normal health message, but it’s delivered through a third person – the liver,” he explained.

“We find anthropomorphism really effective for people who are feeling powerless as they tend to be more sensitised to threat and therefore more likely to engage with such messages. By assigning ‘personhood’ to a body part, we can encourage consumers to limit their alcohol intake or reduce their food portion sizes.”
Dr Josh Newton Deakin Business School’s Department of Marketing

Encouraging socially-desirable behaviours – such as increasing physical activity or environmental responsibility – has the two-way effect of benefitting both the individual and society. And this is one of the reasons why social marketing research is important, he suggests.

“For example, we have a growing population of older people with particular health requirements and issues. But there’s only so many government dollars available to address those issues. So if we can find ways of preventing health issues before they emerge, then it’s going to be more cost effective for society and governments.

“At the same time, it’s also going to be really beneficial for the individual. From that perspective, being able to prevent health issues from emerging is a really powerful reason for using social marketing techniques.”

One of Australia’s major health issues is its ranking as one of the world’s most overweight nations. But to address the problem, Dr Newton says it’s important to understand the reasons behind the weight gain.

“You can look at the (large) numbers of people who are overweight or obese, but they may have had some really negative experiences that contributed to their current weight status. So we need to find ways of addressing these broader experiences,” he explained.

One of these is through an ARC-funded project he’s currently working on to encourage physical activity amongst sedentary adults.

The aim of the research is to see whether additional support and encouragement is required to inspire residents to use new community fitness facilities. This moves beyond the “build it and they will come” philosophy that often underpins the construction of such resources.

“The purpose of this study is to compare not doing anything [other than building a new fitness facility] to developing an ongoing relationship with residents aimed at encouraging them to use the fitness facility more often,” he said.

Dr Newton is also working across environmental topics.

“In the context of environmental issues such as climate change, the idea that ‘every little bit counts’ is somewhat misleading,” he argues.

“Climate change will only be addressed if everyone makes substantial changes to their current consumption practices.’

To better understand this process, he has developed a new decision-making model to explain why consumers adopt many, as opposed to isolated, environmental behaviours.

“It could be environmental purchasing, such as encouraging people to buy more ‘green’ products, or switching to a provider of ‘green’ electricity, or catching a train to work instead of driving. It’s not about changing one behaviour but many behaviours and sometimes that can be difficult, so we developed a framework to help us understand what drives the adoption of multiple environmental behaviours,” he said.

While many of Dr Newton’s research projects are aimed at providing “proof of concept,” he said the broader thread linking his research is in understanding the psychology behind consumer decisions.

“If you understand that and tease it apart, then, hopefully, society and academia will be better placed to identify strategies that will change behaviours for the greater good.”