Social Marketing


Social marketing uses techniques adapted from commercial marketing to encourage positive, voluntary behavior change. This strategy involves disseminating messages that reinforce the benefits of engaging in a specific behavior while minimizing the perceived negative consequences typically associated with behavior change.


  • To influence community attitudes and norms about underage drinking
  • To influence alcohol use outcome expectancies

Typical Elements

  • A comprehensive assessment of local prevention needs and capacity, which identifies the following (Gabriel et al., 2008; Grier & Bryant, 2005; NHTSA, 2001; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014):
    • The specific problem to address in the community, including the risk and protective factors that are contributing to this problem. For example: What underage drinking problems and behaviors are occurring? How often? Where? How do youth obtain alcohol?
    • The segment of the population to reach and influence through social marketing (i.e., the focus population). For example: Who is most affected by the problem? Most likely to change their behavior? Most feasible to reach?
  • A clear understanding of the focus population, including their (Grier & Bryant, 2005; Lefebvre & Flora, 1988; NHTSA, 2001; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014):
    • Perceived benefits of underage drinking and related behaviors like drinking and driving
    • Perceived barriers to and benefits of the desired behavior change
    • Ideas about how to make abstaining more appealing (e.g., more comfortable, fun, or popular)
    • Readiness for change
    • Preferred channels of communication (e.g., text messaging, TV, websites)
  • A message design based on formative research that (Grier & Bryant, 2005; SAMHSA, n.d.):
    • Identifies the desired behavior to achieve through social marketing (e.g., abstaining from alcohol use, not getting into a car with someone who has been drinking, not driving after drinking).
    • Identifies the perceived benefits of and barriers to engaging in the desired behavior.
    • Chooses a single perceived benefit to focus on (e.g., “If I [desired behavior], then [immediate benefit].”
  • A message (or messages) that:
    • Emphasizes how that benefit outweighs the perceived barriers.
    • Uses clear, straightforward language that is easy to understand and culturally appropriate
  • Communication channels that have been selected based on the focus population’s preferences (e.g., text messages, posters, TV, radio, websites). Tailor the message(s) to work well for each selected communication channel (NHTSA, 2001; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014). For example:
    • A text message will need to grab the focus population’s attention using just a few words.
    • A poster should be eye-catching.
    • A radio or TV spot will require the right spokesperson.
  • Communication research (e.g., using focus groups) to test the focus population’s response to the message(s), selected communication channels, and messenger/spokesperson (if applicable). Fine-tune the message(s) and delivery methods, as needed, based on their feedback (Gabriel et al, 2008; Grier & Bryant, 2005; Lefebvre & Flora, 1988; SAMHSA, n. d.; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014).
  • Message(s) that are delivered frequently, using multiple communication channels, and zeroing in on places the focus population frequently accesses. Strive for maximum exposure to the message(s) by the focus population (Gabriel et al., 2008; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014).
  • A plan for monitoring and documenting message delivery (e.g., By which spokesperson? Using which communication channels? On which dates? To which focus audience?), as well as actual message reach and reception (Lefebvre & Flora, 1988; SAMHSA, n.d.; KU Work Group for Community Health and Development, 2014).


Different segments of the general population depending on prevention needs and goals (e.g., college students, parents, college health staff and/or administrators)


  • When implemented with college students, social marketing strategies have been linked to:
    • Increased confidence in and use of techniques to reduce alcohol-related harm (Thompson, Heley, Oster-Aaland, Stastny, & Crawford, 2013)
    • Decreased rates of self-reported high-risk drinking (Glassman, Dodd, Miller, & Braun, 2010)
    • Decreased rates of drinking and driving (Glassman et al., 2010)
    • Decreased rates of DUI violations (Glassman et al., 2010)
    • Decreased rates in alcohol-related judicial violations (Glassman et al., 2010)
    • Decreased transports to the emergency department for alcohol overdose (Glassman et al., 2010)
    • Decreased perception that alcohol facilitates sexual opportunity (Glassman et al., 2010)
  • Compared to control communities, social marketing intervention communities demonstrated reductions in alcohol use among middle school students (Slater et al., 2006).
  • When combined with other strategies, social marketing has been linked to reductions in youth alcohol consumption, daily use of alcohol, and number of drinks consumed per occasion (Gordon, McDermott, Stead, & Angus, 2006).
  • One systematic literature review, however, found that the influence of social marketing on changing alcohol-related attitudes or behavior could not be assessed due to methodological limitations (Janssen et al., 2013).


Peer Crowds: A New Approach to Reaching Youth and Communities with Behavioral Health Issues

Section 2. Conducting a Social Marketing Campaign

Understanding Social Marketing 


No recognition found for role of social marketing in preventing underage drinking and/or its consequences.


Forthofer, M. S., & Bryant, C. A. (2000). Using audience-segmentation techniques to tailor health behavior change strategies. American Journal of Health Behavior, 24(1), 36–43.

Gabriel, R., Becker, L., Leahy, S. K., Landy, A. L., Metzger, J., Orwin, R., . . . Stein-Seroussi, A. (2008, April 30). Assessing the fidelity of implementation of the Strategic Prevention Framework in SPF SIG-funded communities: User’s guide and fidelity assessment rubrics (version 2).

Glassman, T. J., Dodd, V., Miller, E. M., & Braun, R. E. (2010). Preventing high-risk drinking among college students: A social marketing case study. Social Marketing Quarterly, 16(4), 92–110.

Gordon, R., McDermott, L., Stead, M., & Angus, K. (2006). The effectiveness of social marketing interventions for health improvement: What’s the evidence? [Systematic review of the literature]. Public Health, 120(12), 1133–1139.

Grier, S., & Bryant, C. A. (2005). Social marketing in public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 26, 319–339.

Janssen, M. M., Mathijssen, J. J., van Bon-Martens, M. J., van Oers, H. A., & Garretsen, H. F. (2013). Effectiveness of alcohol prevention interventions based on the principles of social marketing: A systematic review. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 8(18). doi: 10.1186/1747-597X-8-18.

KU Work Group for Community Health and Development. (2014). Chapter 45, Section 2: Conducting a Social Marketing Campaign. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas. Retrieved from the Community Tool Box:

Lefebvre, R. C., & Flora, J. A. (1988). Social marketing and public health intervention. Health Education Quarterly, 15(3), 299–315.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). (2001). Community how to guide on…media relations. Retrieved from

Slater, M. D., Kelly, K. J., Edwards, R. W., Thurman, P. J., Plested, B. A., Keefe T. J., …Henry, K. L. (2006). Combining in-school and community-based media efforts: Reducing marijuana and alcohol uptake among younger adolescents. Health Education Research, 21(1), 157–167.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (n.d.). Understanding social marketing. Retrieved from

Thompson, E. B., Heley, F., Oster-Aaland, L., Stastny, S. N., & Crawford, E. C. (2013). The impact of a student-driven social marketing campaign on college student alcohol-related beliefs and behaviors. Social Marketing Quarterly, 19(1), 52–64.