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Social Marketing as Works of Mercy-Rebekah Russell-Bennett

As I was reviewing the new definition recently endorsed by the AASM I started reflecting on the purpose of social marketing.  For some it is about saving the world, for others it is about showing those who ‘don’t know any better’ how to improve their lives, but for me it is about providing choices for those who want to be happy and live in a better society.   Social marketing can be viewed from a higher moral ground perspective (lets help those poor silly people who don’t seem to know what to do) or it can be viewed from the bottom where we look upwards to see those who could do with a helping ‘respectful’ hand.   I think social marketing should be compassionate, an act of kindness that is benevolent; the very definition of the term ‘mercy’.

According to Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, “the  quality of mercy ‘is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven… it blesseth him that gives and him that takes”.  Given that mercy benefits both the giver and the receiver, social marketers should seek to be merciful when seeking to develop social marketing interventions. The notion of mercy is consistent with the view of Craig Lefebvre[i] who states that social marketing programs need to treat people with dignity. 

So what sorts of actions can social marketers do to show they are being merciful?  Well the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy are a medieval list of things you can do to help others.  The works are called ‘corporal’ because they are practical efforts aimed at relieving bodily distress[ii]. They are supposed to be the criteria by which social justice is achieved.  Given that social marketers aim to achieve ‘social good’ perhaps these works can be a list by which we can judge ourselves. So can social marketers claim they achieve social justice through works of mercy?

1.    Feed the hungry

Social marketing is often used to deal with social issues related to nutrition and diet.  We see social marketing programs to improve breastfeeding rates so infants have a better start in life, help people eat healthier and make different food choices.

An interesting campaign in this area is the UK Be A Star Breastfeeding Social Marketing program

2.    Give drink to the thirsty

There are many programs related to water and drinking.  We see programs to improve water cleanliness and conserve water as a resource.  Social marketers also aim to reduce the consumption of alcohol and give ‘thirsty’ consumers alternatives.

For an award-winning benchmark case on water conversation, read the Cloncurry Waterwise Case on the AASM Member Only Resource site.

3.    Give shelter to strangers

Hospitality is a lesser known social marketing issue although domestic violence shelters could be considered to fit into this category.  Perhaps this is an area that could benefit from social marketing efforts.

4.    Clothe the naked

Another area that we don’t generally associate with social marketing is clothing and apparel.  This could range from recycling of clothing and encourage clothes swaps and recycling to assisting people in both the developed and developing nations who are in dire circumstances (possibly financial).

5.    Visit the sick

We often see social marketing applied to health services, indeed this is one of the largest area of expenditure in social marketing for modern governments.   Generally social marketing is associated with preventative rather than treatment health.

6.    Minister to prisoners

Crime and justice are areas with a keen interest in social marketing.  There have been social marketing programs dealing with delinquent youth, burglaries and reduce domestic violence.

For an interesting article on applying social marketing to crime prevention click here Click Here or watch Dr Carroll’s Video Click Here

7.    Bury the dead

More deaths in Developed countries occur from lifestyle related causes than by accidents or trauma. The World health organisation estimates that more than 61% of deaths are attributable to chronic diseases such as heart, stroke and cancer[iii].  The best ways to improve longevity are maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise, healthy diet and not smoking.  Social marketing is increasingly being used to offer solutions and strategies in this area.

For an online calculator that estimates lifespan based on these modifiable lifestyle factors, visit The Death Clock

So take a moment to ponder, which of these acts of mercy are you engaged in?  Do you think that you would pass the ‘judgement’ test of doing good and achieving social justice?

NOTE: If you know of any other interesting resources or cases relating to any of the seven corporal acts of mercy, please leave details in the comments below.

[i] R. Craig Lefebvre, (2012) “Transformative social marketing: co-creating the social marketing discipline and brand”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 2 Iss: 2, pp.118 – 129


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