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In the UK and elsewhere, social marketing is becoming a major feature of health-improvement strategies.1 Based on marketing techniques developed for commercial sales, social marketing uses imagery (eg television, magazines, internet and billboards) and phrases (eg radio adverts and slogans) specifically aimed at target groups (eg young people), typically to increase their positive health behaviours. Both national organisations and local health services routinely develop such interventions, often with little evidence of specifically how each campaign will affect public health. In general, such campaigns are regarded as potentially beneficial and possibly ineffective, but rarely are they considered dangerous to health. However, with access to powerful media such as the internet, professional eye-catching graphics and demographic targeting techniques unimaginable only a decade ago, such views need reassessing. In this report, we highlight the potential for social marketing campaigns to have negative repercussions, using cannabis prevention as an example.
Since 1998, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in the USA has received more than US$1.2 billion of government funds to develop and deliver interventions designed to prevent primarily cannabis use in young people. Through a variety of media resources, it …