Diplomacy trumps in battle for social influence

The moot in the Marketing Association’s Great Debate, hosted by research gurus Ipsos, suggested some clearly drawn battle lines.

But what was positioned as an adversarial discussion, with commercial brands and government squaring off over who is better at creating behaviour change, finished up as more of a collegial negotiation.

People have the best of intentions, but sometimes they need a nudge – brands and government agreed. Marketing budgets are tight – no head shaking (although they’re rather tighter on one side). Behaviour change is hard – yes, no debate there, either.

After a few hours' discussion, the audience voted that there was no winner: brands and government would be best served by working more closely together – and their audiences would be best served this way too.

The session was opened by Ipsos MORI UK Chief Executive Ben Page, whose own public policy credentials include stints with the UK’s Department of Health, Downing Street and various National Health Service trusts, among others. He spoke with authority on the theory of human behaviour change and set the tone for a discussion rich with ideas.

We heard from top communications and marketing bods at three big brands: McDonalds, Coca-Cola, and Lion, who all tried to make the case that when it comes to positive social change messaging, they had it in the bag.

On the government side were the Health Promotion Agency (HPA), New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA).

Through its cheers.org.nz website, the liquor industry wants to reduce harm from alcohol consumption. This motive mirrors that of its debate opponent HPA, which uses alcohol.org.nz.

McDonalds recognises that with 68 million customers a day at 118 restaurants worldwide, great power means great responsibility, and they want to help children make healthier food choices. As well, their flagship social initiative around wearing seat belts – “Make It Click!” – reaches 250,000 Kiwi kids every three years.

Coke wants to promote personal choice and active lifestyles, of which their products could be a part. They showed us the disconnect between intention and behaviour – in the US, 80% of gym memberships are unused, while “lose weight” and “eat healthier” are the top new year's resolutions worldwide.

Each of the brands used TV advertisements as examples of their cutting edge, socially responsible thrust. In all of them there was something else for sale other than their products or message: enjoyment. According to the commercial brands, that positivity was their ace. Liz Read, from Lion, put ALAC's old (and – to be fair to government – retired) Uncle Mark up against their fresh “Be the Artist” campaign to make the point.

NZTA was able to counter with “Blazed”: a message about drug driving that has achieved over 1.5 million hits on YouTube. It's too early to say how effective it's been, but in the war for eyeballs it has certainly taken no prisoners.

HPA talked about the “Wicked Issues” – those big, many headed “Hydras” that it takes a government, with its many levers, to fight. Those many levers, across marketing, policy, community engagement and the most powerful of all – legislation – had the brands agreeing that government actually had the edge in effecting change, even if they were too negative.

By the time the teams were sitting opposite each other taking questions from the floor and rounding out their arguments, the key theme was unity. For the purpose of this discussion the teams’ goals were the same – the pursuit of social good. Commercial profit hardly came up.

So, stuffy old energy efficiency, alcohol moderation and safe driving managed to hold their own against the much sexier sugar, salt, fat and plonk. Although the moot was about who's doing it better, the nub of the discussion was really about how it could be done better all round. Companies with genuine social good motives should be taking their pitch to government – and government should be open to the approach.