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InPsych 2017 | Vol 39

Cover feature : Consumer psychology

Consumer psychologists in social marketing campaigns

Consumer psychologists in social marketing campaigns

Consumer psychologists and social change

Some consumer psychologists work with non-commercial organisations (e.g., health, road safety) to assist in getting people en masse to change their behaviour. Changing behaviour on a large scale is the domain of social marketing. Here the theory of persuasion is not simple. Usually the consumer psychologist will consider a wide range of psychological concepts (social proof, modelling, self-efficacy etc.) and theories relating to behaviour change, such as the theory of planned behaviour. The behaviour change is much more fundamental. Advocacy is required to encourage people to stop one behaviour and begin another behaviour even though they would prefer not to do so, and may perceive the barriers to compliance as overwhelming.

You can’t sell brotherhood like soap

Once consumer psychologists enter the domain of social marketing the aim is to convince the would-be change agent, often a government organisation, that you can’t sell brotherhood like soap (Wiebe, 1951)1. Unlike the marketing of products and services, social marketing sets out to achieve behaviour change usually in amongst large-scale target groups who would not voluntarily wish to change. It is not just about education or propaganda. A social marketing campaign may use mass media or social media, but social marketing is much broader than advertising campaigns. What the consumer psychologist can offer the change agent is a research focus to identify and understand the range of behaviours that need to be considered. A systematic analysis is undertaken of the contextual influences supporting the existing behaviours including injunctive (rule-based) norms, perceived barriers to be overcome, and the role of communication. Recommendations are then made as to how to best achieve the desired behaviours in the chosen targets.

The history of social marketing indicates just how difficult it is to achieve large-scale behaviour change if the target groups are resistant to change (Elliott, 1991). Merely relying on communication programs is a recipe for failure. Consumer psychologists use the skills developed in market and social research along with their knowledge, experience and expertise in behaviour change to assist the change agent to develop a strategic plan of action. Usually this involves deciding on:

  • who to change (segmentation)
  • which specific behaviours to focus on
  • what facilitators for action to employ
  • evaluation criteria and method of data collection
  • feedback processes to improve any future attempts.

Chicken or the egg: The attitude-behaviour issue

Often agencies see the task of achieving social change being primarily about changing attitudes first, and assuming that the advocated desired behaviours will follow. But it is rarely that simple. The consumer psychologist will have a theoretical perspective that goes something like this: to achieve the adoption of the change agent’s desired behaviour, the target needs to have an intention or commitment to perform the new behaviour, have the skills, abilities and belief they can perform the behaviours with positive outcomes and without constraints preventing the behaviour, including injunctive and subjective norms.

Instead of attempting to change behaviour directly, major gains have been achieved in smoking cessation and also in road safety by first changing the environment in which the behaviour is undertaken. In both domains, legislation has been the key to community-wide behaviour change. Rather than focusing on influencing attitudes, change agents were persuaded that making the behaviour unsocial or illegal would provide targets with an excuse to change their behaviour. In the case of smoking behaviours, legislation that was passed in 1994 to ban smoking in public places encouraged smokers to quit and remain abstinent (Scollo & Winstanley, 2012).

Consumer psychologists influence government

Road safety in particular has been in the forefront of influencing the behavioural environment (via legislation, enforcement and advertising) as a means of achieving behaviour change first, to be followed by attitude change. This coercion model has resulted in substantial reductions in the road toll as motorists adopted seatbelts (probably the highest wearing rates in the world), and changed their drinking and driving behaviours as a result of random breath testing. I was involved in convincing the NSW Staysafe Committee Chairman (George Paciullo) that there was public acceptance of the proposed legislation in 1984.

The introduction of bicycle helmets in Victoria relied initially on requesting voluntary adoption by cyclists. Progress was slow, with VicRoads encouraging schools to adopt a range of measures. Teenagers were the most resistant. The argument was put to VicRoads that teenagers would wear them only if all teenage cyclists had to wear them. Parents also resisted purchasing helmets, knowing that their offspring would not wear them. Legislation provided the excuse to buy and wear helmets. As a consumer psychologist I was able to influence the NSW Staysafe committee to introduce the legislation. But legislation alone was not sufficient. Queensland introduced legislation without any penalty or enforcement and wearing rates rose with the introduction of the legislation but then fell again dramatically. Only following consultation with the Queensland Travelsafe Committee did they make changes to achieve a much higher level of compliance through the introduction of penalties and enforcement.

In the past 20 years or so I have specialised in road safety. Having started in road safety as someone with market and social research skills, I moved on to demonstrate behaviour change and social marketing skills. This led to my involvement with various road safety bodies, including the Transport Accident Commission, to investigate a range of specific road safety behaviours across target groups such as children, the elderly, pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. There were further opportunities to influence Government decisions with an invitation to be a member of the Prime Minister’s Australian Advisory Council on Road Trauma providing advice on behaviour change and marketing to the Minister and membership of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Scientific Expert Group who wrote the ‘Marketing of Traffic Safety’ (OECD, 1993). More recent activities have involved the development of the behaviour change program for novice drivers in New South Wales (Elliot, 2012) having been a member of the team which developed the current Victorian novice driver program involving a large-scale experimental design aimed at influencing novice drivers driving behaviours (Elliott & Buckley, 2011).

Review and evaluation of social change campaigns

Consumer psychologists undertake reviews to guide social change activities and evaluations to determine the success of social change campaigns. Examples include a review for VicHealth of social marketing communication programs focusing on violence against women (Donovan & Vlais, 2005). The report provided an evidence base informed by research and a review of campaigns in Australia and overseas, and informed future activities to support women to live in a community free from the fear of violence. Similarly, a meta-analysis of 87 studies evaluated road safety campaigns (Elliott, 1993) providing valuable empirical data in relation to the ingredients for success.

Consumer psychologists have been involved in informing activities across a wide range of social marketing issues. Some of these are outlined in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Social marketing fields in which consumer psychologists are involved.

I, along with a number of other psychologists such as Hugh Mackay, Rob Donovan, Vicki Arbes, Graham Chant, and John Sergeant, have been elected as Fellows to the Australian Market & Social Research Society (AMSRS) reflecting a research orientation to behaviour change in social marketing settings. As a consumer psychologist, I encourage researchers and decision-makers to experiment (Lewis, White, Ho, Elliott, & Watson, 2017) when considering communication messages aimed at changing specific behaviours. Much behaviour is resistant to change. Consumer psychologists play an important role in the development, planning, implementation and evaluation of campaigns that can have significant and profound impacts on the broader community.

The author can be contacted at researchelliott13@bigpond.com

1 Social marketing emerged from Wiebe’s (1951) exploration of the differences between marketing for commercial benefit and marketing for social benefit. Wiebe questioned “Why can’t you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you can sell soap?”


  • Donovan, R. J. & Vlais, R. (2005). Vic Health review of communication components of social marketing/public education campaigns focussing on violence against women. Melbourne: Victorian Health Promotion Foundation.
  • Elliott, B. J. (1991). A re-examination of the social marketing concept. University of New South Wales.
  • Elliott, B. (1993). Road safety mass media campaigns: A meta analysis. Canberra: Federal Office of Road Safety.
  • Elliott, B. & Buckley, L. (2011). P Drivers Project: Changing novice drivers behaviour, Train the Trainer Program. VicRoads.
  • Elliott, B. (2012). Safer drivers course: Curriculum framework. Chippendale: Transport for NSW.
  • Lewis, I., White, K., Ho, B., Elliott, B., & Watson, B. (2017). Insights into targeting young male drivers with anti-speeding advertising: An application of the Step approach to Message Design and Testing (SatMDT). Accident Analysis & Prevention, 103, 129-142.
  • OECD. (1993). Marketing of traffic safety: Report prepared by an OECD scientific expert group. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  • Scollo, M. M., & Winstanley, M. H. (2012). Tobacco in Australia: Facts and figures: A comprehensive online resource (4th Ed.). Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria.
  • Wiebe, G. D. (1951) Merchandising commodities and citizenship on television. Public Opinion Quarterly, 15(4), 679.

Disclaimer: Published in InPsych on June 2017. The APS aims to ensure that information published in InPsych is current and accurate at the time of publication. Changes after publication may affect the accuracy of this information. Readers are responsible for ascertaining the currency and completeness of information they rely on, which is particularly important for government initiatives, legislation or best-practice principles which are open to amendment. The information provided in InPsych does not replace obtaining appropriate professional and/or legal advice.