Last Updated: November 28, 2020

In the early 1980’s, a brief but powerful commercial started airing on network television. The 15-second spot showed a sizzling frying pan, and a voiceover narrator announces, “This is drugs.” An egg is cracked into the pan, and the narrator continues, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

This campaign was created by the New York City-based nonprofit organization Partnership for a Drug-Free America, known today as Partnership at The spot has been copied, quoted, and spoofed countless times since, and still lives on today as one of the most memorable and effective examples of social marketing—a specialized form of advertising that aims not to sell products, but to change the world.

What is social marketing?

While most methods of marketing are geared toward selling goods or services, the “product” in social marketing is human behavior. The philosophy behind this idea can be illustrated by a quote from Gerhard Weibe, a German World War II U-boat commander, who said: “Why can’t you sell brotherhood and rational thinking like you can sell soap?”

The goal of social advertising campaigns is to promote ideas that either encourage positive behaviors like caring for the environment or wearing seat belts; or discourage negative behaviors, such as speeding or smoking in public areas. In this way, social marketing “sells” the well-being of society as a whole. (See also Green Marketing)

Interesting social marketing stats

  • 73% of U.S. adults say being involved in social change is important to them
  • During times of economic strain, 60% of U.S. women and 53% of U.S. men have engaged in positive social change by donating money, goods, or services
  • 4 out of 5 adults believe: “I can make the world a better place by my actions”
  • 71% of women and 61% of men in the United States say they want to help people that are less fortunate than they are

Source: 2012 Social Change Impact Report, Walden University

There are many long-running, instantly recognizable social marketing campaigns that many people don’t recognize as marketing. One example is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which started a campaign for drivers to tie a red ribbon onto their vehicles, signifying their commitment to safe, sober driving. The red ribbon symbol was also adopted for AIDS awareness, and the idea of “awareness ribbon” campaigns soon spread to other causes—pink for breast cancer, purple for Alzheimer’s, and yellow for families of soldiers who are on active duty abroad.

When these campaigns are done well, social marketing can be a powerfully effective force for true, positive change.

Who implements social marketing?

Social marketing is used primarily by nonprofit organizations, charity foundations, public highway departments, and government agencies. It’s also utilized by emergency services, such as police and fire departments. Some commercial organizations also occasionally use social marketing strategies.

Nonprofit organizations and charity foundations employ social marketing to raise awareness, promote various causes, and encourage contributions from the public. Social marketing provides a way to inform and engage people that charitable organizations would not otherwise be able to reach through more traditional marketing channels. This strategy also helps charitable campaigns spread faster and reach a wider global market. (See also Non-profit Organization Manager)

Amnesty International is a charity organization that helps fight injustice and promote global human rights. In 2006, they launched an award-winning social marketing campaign in Switzerland that used transparent billboards to impose scenes depicting the causes they’re working toward onto glass bus stop booths—such as food shortages in Sudan, military brutality in China, and violence toward women in Iraq. The campaign raised awareness of world issues and increased donations of funds and volunteer time.

For public sector agencies, social marketing is often used as a way to encourage people to follow rules and regulations, and practice general safe behaviors. For example, police departments campaign with slogans such as “Buckle up for life” and “Click it or ticket” to encourage people to wear their seat belts—showing either the positive rewards for this action (saving lives) or the negative consequences for ignoring the law (getting a traffic ticket).

Government agencies use social marketing not only to encourage legal behaviors, such as observing the drinking age, but also to promote the general well-being of society. There are several government social marketing campaigns designed to inform the public on issues like food safety, sexually transmitted diseases, and personal hygiene.

One example is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) campaign for cooking food to safe temperatures to avoid the spread of salmonella and other bacteria. This campaign uses the slogan, “Is it done yet?” with a photo of meat being measured by a food thermometer that reads 160 degrees—a safe internal temperature for ground beef.

For large commercial organizations, social marketing is often an effective way to encourage interest, participation, and donations for charitable foundations they support. One example is the Nike Foundation, which is working to help developing countries prosper through a campaign called The Girl Effect—using thought-provoking commercials that tell a story through text and music to gain Facebook fans and raise awareness for this cause.

One Memorable Social Marketing Campaign

The United Support of Artists for Africa, or simply USA for Africa, was founded to help relieve famine and disease in Africa—specifically the 1984-1985 Ethiopia famine that led to more than 400,000 deaths. This group was actually a “super band” composed of 47 U.S. recording artists, who came together to record one song and donate the profits to famine relief in Africa.

The song was “We Are the World.” It was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, who also performed parts along with other superstars like Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan.

“We Are the World” sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of only 30 singles to ever sell over 10 million or more worldwide. With this campaign and the benefit event Hands Across America—a human chain of seven million people in the continental United States holding hands for 15 minutes—USA for Africa raised nearly $100 million for charity relief.

Who is effectively reached by social marketing?

Social marketing has the broadest of audiences: everyone in a society. However, the target for social marketing varies with the “society” that the advertiser is aiming to change. Some campaigns simply raise awareness for local issues, while others have the lofty goal of changing the world.

For most, it’s human nature to want to do good, and positive social marketing campaigns offer the opportunity to make a difference—even if it’s on a small scale. Contributing to society can deliver individual, intangible benefits in the form of self-worth and self-esteem. (See also Cause Marketing)

Negative social marketing campaigns that warn about consequences are also effective, whether the consequences are personal, such as drug use, or general, such as saving the rainforests. Awareness is the key element for negative social marketing. For example, most people had no idea that the plastic shopping bags they throw away every day make their way into natural environments, where they’re deadly to wildlife such as sea turtles and dolphins. Several social marketing campaigns have been created to bring this issue to light, and today many people shop with reusable cloth bags, or choose paper over plastic.

How is a social marketing plan developed?

A lot of work and behind-the-scenes planning goes into developing an effective social marketing campaign. Naturally, the first step is to identify the behavior that the campaign will aim to change (such as using too many plastic shopping bags). The marketing team does a lot of research on the behavior by looking at existing statistics and often performing surveys to find out how prevalent it is.

Social Marketing Strategies

  • Symbols. Many effective social marketing campaigns use symbolic visuals that are instantly recognizable. Examples include Awareness Ribbons, Smokey the Bear for wildfire prevention, and Rosie the Riveter, which was used during World War II to inspire women to help with the war effort.
  • Slogans. Other social marketing campaigns rely on short, memorable catch phrases, such as “Just Say No,” the slogan for the U.S. government’s War on Drugs campaign. The phrase was created by First Lady Nancy Reagan to champion a substance abuse prevention program from the National Institutes of Health.
  • Imagery. Social marketing campaigns, particularly those pointing out negative consequences, often use powerful imagery to instantly illustrate the cause. Examples include the aforementioned photographs of sea turtles, and the photos of starving children used in the Christian Children’s Fund commercials with Sally Struthers.

If there’s a sufficient problem that the organization believes can be changed, the next step is to find out why the behavior that’s causing the problem exists, and what can be done to change it.

For example, a community planning team might be working on ways to get more people to recycle, and realize that most people aren’t doing it because the existing recycling program in the community is too complex and takes too much time. Often, multiple surveys are conducted during the research phase. Research teams will talk to people working in the industries related to their cause, conduct telephone or email surveys of people in their target society, and may even form in-person focus groups to discuss the issue and gauge the reactions.

When the marketing team determines the best way to change the behavior, they work on ways to illustrate their message and get the word out. During this stage, marketing materials are created. Many social marketing campaigns use simple, powerful concepts that deliver their message at a glance, like the pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness.

In addition to materials, the team has to pick the right medium. Some social marketing campaigns work best as videos, television, or radio commercials. If a campaign relies heavily on an image, like a photograph, it may be effective as a billboard or print advertisement. Brochures or newsletters sent to mailing lists, either printed or digital, are another choice. Social marketing campaigns can also be promoted through live events like benefit concerts, banquets, or galas.

What types of careers work with social marketing strategies?

Nonprofit Marketing Manager

What do they do?

Social Marketing Salaries

  • Non-profit Marketing Manager
    Median income: $71,219
    Top earner: $150,000
  • Public Relations Specialist
    Median income: $52,900
    Top earner: $95,200
  • Account Liaison
    Median income: $58,000
    Top earner: $65,000

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Statistics & Labor; Watkins Uiberall CPA;

The duties of a manager for a nonprofit organization are nearly identical to those of their commercial counterparts. A nonprofit marketing manager coordinates the marketing department for the company, develops advertising campaigns and strategies, and supervises the running of marketing campaigns.

One difference between nonprofit and commercial marketing departments is that nonprofit departments are usually much smaller, and may be either staffed by volunteers, or run entirely by the manager, who sometimes hires an outside advertising agency to implement campaigns.

Education and Skills

Most marketing managers for nonprofits have a 4-year bachelor’s degree in a field relating to marketing or business, with a specialty in social courses.

Nonprofit marketing managers frequently have experience in the marketing departments of commercial companies, and decide to move into the nonprofit sector out of a desire to make a difference in society.

Public Relations Specialist

What do they do?

The goal of a public relations specialist is to generate positive publicity, usually through social marketing campaigns and strategies. Some of these specialists are directly employed by government agencies, public service companies, nonprofit organizations, or large commercial companies. Others work on a freelance basis, either as individuals or for marketing agencies that specialize in social marketing.

Education and Skills

In general, public relations specialists hold bachelor’s degrees in public relations, or related fields like journalism, communication, or marketing. They often have entry-level experience in lower marketing positions before becoming specialists.

Account Liaison

What do they do?

These professionals employ social marketing on a limited regional scale, usually within their immediate communities. Places like hospitals and universities hire account liaisons to enhance the public reputation of their organization and spread positive messages about the benefits of using their services.

Education and Skills

Account liaisons are usually required to hold a bachelor’s degree in either marketing or a related field, or in fields related to the organization that employs them. For example, a hospital account liaison could have a business degree or an RN degree, while a college liaison might have a marketing degree or a bachelor’s in education.

How can a marketing school help you succeed?

Our Recommended Schools

  1. Grand Canyon University (GCU)

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  2. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)

    Explore the bond between business and consumer behavior with a degree in marketing.

For those who want to use social marketing, a degree from a marketing school can equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to design and launch campaigns that make a difference. Passion is an important quality for a social marketer, but a strong education helps professionals focus that passion into effective social change.

Courses like qualitative and quantitative research help professionals prepare for the intensive research that goes into creating social marketing campaigns. Research is a key element for success in social marketing, and with a strong understanding of the different techniques for researching an issue, it’s easier to find and use the necessary information.

A social marketer has to have a solid understanding of public behavior. Courses like consumer psychology can help these professionals figure out why some marketing messages are effective, and others aren’t, so they can fine-tune social marketing campaigns. Behavior change theory classes build on this skill by exploring human motivations for change.

Finally, strong communication is a requirement for any marketer, including people involved in social marketing. Courses in communication help professionals to create the simple, yet powerful visuals and phrases that are the core elements of an effective social marketing campaign—giving them the ability to get a point across quickly and decisively.

To discover more about how earning a degree in marketing, business, or advertising can help to create social marketing campaigns that make a positive difference in communities of all sizes, ask for further information from schools that offer these courses.