Social Marketing Ethics: A need for more open dialogue

I came across a blog posting recently that had the National Chief Psychiatrist of Ghana blaming some of the pastors for hampering their efforts to reduce mental illness. He claimed that the pastors “brainwashed patients and their relatives” and played on their superstitious beliefs to discourage them from seeking help from mental health professionals. Shifting gears, the Chief Psychiatrist then started discussing the new Mental Health Act. He stated that it was key to decreasing mental illness among the masses and would result in 40-50 psychiatric bed facilities in all regions in the next 10 years. Elaborating on the mental health strategy, he said “we will target specific groups and educate them on the law to ensure its effective implementation”.  I couldn’t help but notice the National Chief Psychiatrist’s none too subtle hostility towards the pastors. Clearly he thought that the pastors were in the wrong and his endorsed mental health strategy was the answer to better mental health in Ghana. While there wasn’t a quote from these “brainwashing pastors” I did wonder about their side of the story. What did they think of the new Mental Health Act? Did they think that their ways were the right ways? The bottom line is that both the National Chief Psychiatrist and the pastors are competing with each other. They are trying to market a product, be it the new mental health strategy that adopts a more clinical approach or traditional ways and medicine; they are both trying to influence people’s health behaviours and perception towards mental illness. They are “targeting” specific audiences and promoting a message specific to them. While the 4 Ps i.e. Product, Place, Price and Promotion may vary for the National Chief Psychiatrist and the local pastors, they are both attempting to change people’s help seeking behaviours regarding mental health. This right here was social marketing in action!

This got me wondering about the ethics of social marketing and how it isn’t necessarily discussed. If anything, as conscientious public health professionals it is assumed that everyone will adhere to ethical standards. And we assume yet again that which ever product health professionals are trying to get the audience to adopt is the right one for them. Hopefully the product which could be an intervention, service etc. is evidence based, context appropriate and based on valid formative research. But in the end, does that justify using social marketing to manipulate people’s behaviours to satisfy your intervention goals and objectives? Does it then make it alright to do so as long as you have public welfare and best intentions at heart? How far is it ok to go when using fear, shame or anxiety in social marketing strategies? Andreasen (2001) discussed a list of ethical principles common to both social and commercial marketing –

  • Be truthful
  • Protect privacy
  • Don’t model inappropriate behaviour
  • Don’t be offensive
  • Be fair and balanced
  • Avoid stereotyping
  • Protect the children

However, as Andreasen (2001) elaborates, we can’t consider these principles as a checklist that gives equal weight to each issue.  An open dialogue and locating yourself is extremely important. He also suggests use of rational frameworks to avoid bad ethics. I have listed below some resources that I found helpful. While by no means do they answer all questions, they are a good starting point.

Some useful resources:

Amenuveve, V. (January 12, 2013). Superstition, pastors blamed – For derailing effort at reducing mental illness. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Andreasen, A.R. (2001). Ethics in Social Marketing. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Eagle, L. (2009). Social marketing ethics: report prepared for the National Social Marketing Centre. Technical Report. National Social Marketing Centre. Retrieved February 6 2013 from

Rothschild, M.L. (1999). Carrots, Sticks, and Promises: A Conceptual Framework for the Management of Public Health and Social Issue Behaviors. Journal of Marketing, 63, 24-37.


Dhaarna Tangri


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One response to “Social Marketing Ethics: A need for more open dialogue”

  1. Stuart says :

    Great article.

    Never consider marketing ethics being played out in religious groups!

    Thanks for posting the bullet points for ethical behaviour, very useful!


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