In public health, the term “evidence-based” is often used to qualify an intervention as valuable and worthwhile, and with good reason. When it comes to health, looking for evidence that an approach has been proven to work in the past is understandably desired—especially with regards to a treatment plan or research design.
But does “evidence-based” have a place as a required element in public health social marketing? Yes and no. Social marketing has tremendous value in promoting and advancing evidence-based medicine. But requiring a social marketing approach itself to be evidence-based, in my opinion, threatens to remove all creativity and innovation from the process. It also presupposes that there is a robust body of methodogically-sound evaluation data that supports an evidence-based designation. However, we know that social marketing interventions often lack systematic evaluation to pinpoint exactly what elements worked and why. (The reasons for this, including resource constraints, time pressures, and research clearance requirements, shall be reserved for another discussion.)
To be sure, in social marketing as in many other disciplines, there is a tremendous amount that can be learned by looking at what has worked well in the past on similar issues or for similar audiences. But should we stop there? Just because there aren’t evaluated results or a peer-reviewed journal article proving that a particular approach works, does that mean it shouldn’t be tried?
I believe the answer is no. Risk taking is an essential component of successful social marketing initiatives. In many cases, that means trying something that hasn’t been tried before.
I’m not talking about abandoning all reason for a cool idea. I am suggesting that starting with a comprehensive understanding of the intended audience and adding insight, experience, creativity—as well as not being afraid to take a calculated risk or two—can result in a far more successful effort than simply recycling something that has already been done and evaluated.
That’s how we get the breakthrough efforts that truly make a difference in knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors – like the truth campaign to combat teen smoking, the That Guy campaign to reduce drinking among young servicemen, The Heart Truth® campaign to promote women’s heart health, and the Nothing But Nets campaign to prevent malaria.
So, instead of “evidence-based,” why not soften the stringent requirements that that term engenders, and look to create social marketing initiatives, interventions, and campaigns that are “evidence-informed” or “knowledge and insight-based?” Those are terms I can live with. What do YOU think?