The Battle between Commercial Marketing and Social Marketing – Philip Kotler, Giuseppe Fattori

DOI: 10.48291/SISA.67.2.4 Sistema Salute, 67, 2, 2023: pp. 179-190

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Philip Kotler
Professor Emeritus of Marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University 

Giuseppe Fattori
Marketing Sociale Università di Bologna

La battaglia tra il marketing commerciale e il marketing sociale
Philip Kotler, Giuseppe Fattori

Key words: Social marketing, demarketing, curtailing consumption, degrowth, less is more


The purpose of commercial marketing is to sell products that satisfy customers’ needs at a profit, without judging the rightfulness of those needs. Social marketing’s purpose is to modify or change consumer needs when they are harmful to the person, other persons, or society. Social marketing therefore acts as a corrective to harmful commercial marketing practices. With the rise of sustainability concerns, social marketing takes on the additional objective of urging persons in advanced nations to reduce their consumption on the grounds of ”less is more”. Social marketers will mount more campaigns to discourage water consumption, beef consumption, heavy packaging with plastics, and so on. To preserve the planet, an emerging goal of social marketing is Degrowth.

Parole chiave:  Marketing sociale, demarketing, riduzione dei consumi, decrescita, meno è meglio


Lo scopo del marketing commerciale è quello di vendere prodotti che soddisfino i bisogni dei clienti con profitto, senza giudicare la correttezza di tali bisogni. Lo scopo del marketing sociale è quello di modificare o cambiare i bisogni dei consumatori quando questi sono dannosi per la persona, per gli altri o per la società. Il marketing sociale agisce quindi come correttivo alle pratiche di marketing commerciale dannose. Con l’aumento delle preoccupazioni per la sostenibilità, il marketing sociale assume l’ulteriore obiettivo di esortare le persone nei paesi avanzati a ridurre i loro consumi sulla base del principio “meno è meglio”. Il marketing sociale organizzerà più campagne per scoraggiare il consumo di acqua, di carne bovina, di imballaggi pesanti con plastica e così via. Per preservare il pianeta, un obiettivo emergente del marketing sociale è la Decrescita.


Marketing, as David Jobber reminds us (1), has a bad reputation. In common language it is often used as a synonym for deception and exploitation, and many see it as an activity that leads to excessive consumption and increases social inequalities.
Social inequalities are also conditioned by the determinants of health: social and commercial.

The Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) are the mechanisms through which inequalities affect people’s health (e.g., poverty, housing, education). In 2013, Millar (2) coined the term “Commercial determinants of health (CDoH)”.

The commercial determinants of health are private sector activities that affect people’s health, directly or indirectly. SDoH are macroscopic and complex conditions attributable to a multiplicity of factors and political responsibilities, while CDoH are more circumscribed factors and can be traced back to more defined and identifiable responsibilities (3). In 2016, in an article published in the Lancet, Ilona Kickbush described a different type of health determinant: “We define commercial determinants of health as those actions and strategies used by the private sector to promote products and choices that are harmful to health” (4). The influence of companies according to Kickbush is exercised through four channels and in the first-place inserts marketing:

  1. marketing, which increases the desirability and acceptability of unhealthy goods;
  2. lobbying, which may hinder political barriers such as plain packaging and minimum age for alcohol consumption;
  3. corporate social responsibility strategies, which can divert attention and mask tarnished reputations;
  4. extended supply chains, which amplify the company’s influence around the world.

Figura 1- Ilona Kickbusch. Dynamics that constitute the commercial determinants of health (4).

In 2018, McKee and Stuckler (5) identified four ways companies affect health:

  1. define the dominant narrative;
  2. lay down the rules under which the company operates, in particular trade;
  3. commodify knowledge;
  4. undermining political, social and economic rights.

In March 2023, the World Health Organization completed the description of CDoH: Commercial determinants of health are private sector activities that affect people’s health, directly or indirectly, positively or negatively (6). Although business entities can contribute positively to health and society, there is increasing evidence that the products and practices of some actors, in particular large transnational corporations, are responsible for increasing rates of avoidable diseases, planetary damage and social and health inequalities; these problems are increasingly referred to by Gilmore as the commercial determinants of health (7).

Figura 2 – B. Gilmore. Model of the commercial determinants of health (7).

In this regard, the 2019 Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study (8) estimates that four commercial products alone (tobacco, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, and fossil fuels) are responsible for 19 million global deaths per year, 34% of the 56 million total deaths, or 41% of the 42 million deaths from non-communicable diseases.

French and Gordon say we need to focus more on social goals and less on marketing, or at least on the neoliberal vision of marketing (9). Opposing neoliberalism means emphasizing the importance of social cohesion, dynamic social institutions and communities, rather than seeing everything through the perverse lens of individual responsibility. People are not and must not be reduced to mere consumers (10).

Concrete solutions to these problems can come from social marketing, which best of all, knows “the rules” of commercial marketing.

For example, nearly 200 major financial institutions (which together manage more than US$16 trillion) have signed a pledge to support anti-tobacco policies through loans, investments and insurance (11). In Europe, the “Social Marketing for One Health” competition has just ended. Its aim being to develop new dimensions of marketing and bring to light a new generation of Social Marketers (12). In Italy, social marketing is part of the “public health” and is in the national programming of the Prevention Plan (13) which provides Social Marketing programs with the “One Health” perspective and supported by the Health Equity Audit (14). As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (15), Director-General of the WHO, writes, public health cannot progress without action on the Commercial determinants of health. These considerations should encourage young researchers, communities, and new government and business leadership to imagine, co-design and, above all, invest in a world where human and planetary health always takes priority over profit.


Commercial marketing started with a very clear purpose, to satisfy customer needs and wants at a profit. If customers wanted lower food prices, they could buy food at Walmart. If customers wanted Marlboro cigarettes, every drugstore carried Marlboro and many other cigarette brands. Marketers made no judgments about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of a human need or want. Hotels were happy to create beautiful casinos in Las Vegas for persons who sought to satisfy their gambling want. Film makers stood ready to produce XXX films for persons who sought to virtually satisfy sexual wants. In short, marketers catered to people’s wants and needs as they existed. Marketers would not try to change deep needs, beliefs or values that people wanted to satisfy. Marketing, in essence, fulfilled the promise of Capitalism, that people have appetites that they desire to satisfy. They have the right to buy and have anything they desire and can afford.

The Rise of Social Marketing

Yet some marketers noticed that some needs were potentially hurting people or society. Cigarette smokers injured their own health and shortened their lives by smoking. Through secondary smoke, they hurt others. Persons imbibing too much alcohol often abuse their wives or other family members. Should marketers interfere with these behaviors? Two marketing professors in 1971 decided to use marketing to take aim at certain questionable behaviors (16). The professors gave the name “social marketing” to describe campaigns designed to reduce unhealthy behaviors. These campaigns became an offspring of societal marketing to show how marketing can help build a better society. The irony is that social marketing is largely an attack on commercial marketing. If an anti-smoking campaign works, cigarette marketers lose out commercially. If an anti-gambling campaign works, casinos lose money. Social marketing has grown significantly over time. Today over several thousand marketers are engaged in designing social marketing campaigns for local, state, national and international situations. Consider all the campaigns to get us to eat healthier foods (with less salt, sugar and fat) and to exercise more regularly. Consider all the campaigns to protect our air and water quality and to plant trees. Consider all the campaigns to conserve water and avoid buying products with excessive packaging, plastics and littering. Consider campaigns against bullying, hate, and racial slurs (17).

Coronavirus Pandemic Enters the Picture

In 2020, the world was struck by Covid and its variants. A significant number of people were hospitalized and needed ventilators to breathe. In the U.S., deaths rose during 2020-2022 to almost one million dead Americans. Social marketers became engaged in three causes: getting persons to wear masks, maintaining social distance, and getting vaccinated. Social marketers also favored workers working at home rather than in offices without good ventilations. They urged people to stay away from bars, restaurants, theatres, and airports, even though this meant great commercial losses to those industries. As hard as social marketers worked to promote mask wearing, vaccinations and desocializing, a large contingent of citizens emerged to claim either that Covid was a fraud or was overexaggerated or an interference with their freedoms. They wanted distressed venues to remain open to citizens. Social marketers made some progress and could have made more progress with a larger budget. They had to recognize their limited power and budget to persuade politically motivated anti-maskers and anti- vaxers to change their opposition.

“Sustainability” Enters the Picture

Covid fighters made some progress in reducing the number of hospital cases and deaths. However, a continuing problem – that of climate change – came into sharper focus and urgency. The planet was getting warmer and creating costly climate problems. Companies were urged to add “sustainability” as a second goal in their profit planning. Companies needed to reduce the amount of carbon that their business activities generated. When too much carbon is generated, the planet warms, the ice caps melt, coastal cities get flooded, and climate change produces more fires, hurricanes, floods and parching of land. The heat in countries on the equator becomes intolerable and citizens need to flee to countries with cooler temperatures. Companies should aim to adopt practices that would lead to net zero carbon production. They need to move from a make-sell-dispose “linear business” to a conserve-reuse-recycle “circular business”. Companies must reduce waste and reuse materials to cut their carbon emissions. They must pay a carbon price for their carbon emissions and buy carbon offsets to approach a net-zero carbon output. Companies that make these “sustainability” investments understand that their costs will rise in the short run but would lead to higher profits in the long run. Companies know that their customers, especially their millennials and centennials, will judge them favorably by their sustainability investments. Many of their employees will also look favorably on their company’s commitment.

The Impact of Sustainability on Consumer Lifestyles

Sustainability is a call on changing consumer behavior. Social marketing campaigns will urge citizens to adopt new behaviors and values. Al Gore, in his book An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming, lists 30 person behaviors to reduce carbon generation (18). Here are 10:

  • Change a light
  • Drive less
  • Recycle more
  • Check your tires
  • Use less hot water
  • Avoid products with a lot of packaging
  • Adjust thermostat
  • Plant a tree
  • Turn off electronic devices
  • Spread the word

To practice these measures calls for living a new lifestyle! Commercial marketers have operated on the assumption that human wants and the earth’s resources are unlimited. But the earth’s resources are limited! Limited resources requires us to reduce human consumption.

Should Social Marketing Get Consumers to Curtail their Consumption?

More of the world’s population are moving into cities. Nicholas Freudenberg and Sandro Galea, in their article “Cities of Consumption: The Impact of Corporate Practices on the Health of Urban Populations,” observe (19):

“The increasing concentration of the world’s population in cities and the growing accumulation of political and economic power by corporations create new threats to health and opportunities for improving global health…We focus on the growth of consumption as a leading cause of mortality and morbidity and describe how the food, tobacco, automobiles, and other industries promote unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles in urban settings. Cities are also sites for developing alternatives to unhealthy corporate practices, and we assess strategies used to modify practices that harm health.”

People in cities in advanced countries account for a disproportionate amount of consumption. They eat more, live in larger homes, and buy more clothing than people in developing countries. Many are overweight. Everywhere there are signs of a “Throwaway Culture.” Landfills dot the landscape carrying old cellphones, appliances, mattresses, refrigerators, and other “junk.” Why can’t companies use the
parts of disposed products and recycle them rather than produce more landfills? Look at Patagonia, maker of jackets and clothing. Their selling proposition is that before you buy more, make sure that you reused, patched up, or at least gave away a piece of clothing that someone else can use. Reusing and recycling products will reduce the level of production and therefore the level of carbon warming of the earth. The goal would be to get people living in advanced countries to lower their consumption and live simpler lives. The task would be to convince them that “less is more.” This phrase originated in Robert Browning’s poem that read “Yet do much less, so much less…Well, less is more, Lucrezia; I am judged.”In 1947, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used “less is more” to describe his minimalist architecture, emphasizing the desirability of less visual clutter in the building of homes. The fact is that profit-driven capitalism pushes output far beyond what mankind needs. Powerful advertising continuously persuades people that they need the latest car, clothing, appliances and homes. Many citizens end up feeling stressed and unhappy when they can’t do more shopping and buying and accumulating of more goods. The poet William Wordsworth pointed out, in his poem The World is too Much with Us in the line “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” We work too hard and frantically to accumulate wealth and leave little time to enjoy our lives. Nonstop Capitalism is leading to deforestation, overfishing, soil erosion, mass extinction of species, and more fires, extreme storms, and floods. What is the Alternative to Nonstop Capitalism? One alternative is Degrowth, namely growing our economy and our population at a slower rate. Jason Hickel spelled this out in his thoughtful book Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World (20). He spells out how Capitalism’s pursuit of endless growth destroys our natural ecological lives and processes. What do people think of Nonstop Capitalism? A Harvard study reports that 51% of young Americans (ages 18-39) no longer support American capitalism. Regarding the statement “Capitalism does more harm than good,” 69% of French agree and 74% of Indians agree. Regarding the idea of endless “economic growth, a Yale University study in 2018 reported that 70% of Americans agreed with the statement that ‘environmental protection is more important than growth.’ New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made headlines in 2019 promising to abandon GDP growth in favor of well-being. The leaders of Scotland and Iceland followed suit. Note that all these leaders are women. And there is young Greta Thunberg speaking to global elites: “We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money andfairy tales of endless economic growth. How dare you!” A major consumer research study found that 70% of people in middle-and high income countries believe that over-consumption is putting our planet and society at risk, that we should buy and own less, and that doing so would not compromise our happiness or well-being. Many people are yearning for a better system.

What Needs to be Done?

The impending crisis of a warming planet requires persons in advanced economies to cut down on their consumption. Jason Hickel in his book Less is More proposed five actions that would help save the planet and improves people’s lives. They are:

  1. Cut planned obsolescence. American Capitalism needs to produce products with short lives so that consumers will need to replace or upgrade them on a regular basis. Some fashion houses design clothes that last only for a few wears or rapidly go out of style. Manufacturers could build appliances that last five times longer with man- ufacturers guaranteeing to keep them operating. This would greatly reduce material throughput and carbon generation without affecting people’s lives.
  2. Cut advertising. Advertising is the main business tool that drives people to want more than they need. Ads exploit anxieties and make invidious comparisons that can be solved by products offering higher status, or more social acceptance or glamour. Companies are gathering increased information about each individual consumer so that they could trigger the hot psychological button to generate a purchase.
  3. Shift from ownership to usership. Most home owned goods stay idle most of the time. The family car, lawn mower, power tools and other possessions are parked in the garage or closets. The idea of sharing more idle goods with friends and neighbors is on the rise. Persons owning cars can join Uber and persons with an empty bedroom can join Airbnb. More people are interested in renting goods than owning goods. If 10 neighbors all use the same lawn mower, this saves pro- ducing nine lawn mowers and saving a lot of materials and carbon fallout.
  4. End food waste. Studies show that 50% of food produced each year is destroyed during poor harvests, or on its way to the market or in homes and restaurants. Poor transportation or storage facilities lead to a lot of waste. If much of the waste could be ended, agriculture could meet our food needs with half as much land and create much less carbon. Instead of food waste ending up in landfills, more use should be made of composting the discarded food.
  5. Scale down ecologically destructive industries. The need is urgent to replace fossil fuel (oil, gas, coal) with renewable sources of energy. A case can also be made that the beef industry generates high levels of methane and requires huge feed and slaughtering areas of land. The country could scale down the arms industry and the private jet industry.

Back to the Battle between Commercial Marketing and Social Marketing

Very often an established system will be pressured by a counter system. Capitalism’s excesses lead to countermeasures by government to correct these excesses. In the same spirit, the excesses of commercial marketing invite social marketing to correct these excesses. Commercial marketing’s excesses do not mean the end of marketing. Rather these excesses call for the corrective force of social marketing. Social marketers use a set of tools to counter harmful marketing practices. They use product, price, place and promotion (the 4Ps of Marketing) to “demarket” bad practices and inspire good practices. A prominent social marketer, Gerald Hastings, saw the relation between commercial and social marketing in the following way (21): Social marketing’s understanding of both the commercial and social sectors puts it in a unique position to provide realistic critiques of marketing and identify intelligent solu- tions. The paper concludes that social marketing will flourish by exploiting its twin under- standing of the good and the bad that marketing can bring to society. The battle between commercial marketing and social marketing is a healthy battle that hopefully will produce better outcomes for the well-being of humanity.

Questions Still to be Answered

I confess that there are still questions to be answered in trying to curb consumption in the interest of preserving a healthy planet. Here are three key questions and my speculations.

  1. In curbing consumption, will the economy be able to produce enough jobs? In any economy transformation, some old jobs are lost and some new jobs are created. We may produce fewer “gas-driven” cars and more electric cars that will last longer and need new job skills and workers. Also the work week needs to be shortened so that people can benefit from the pleasure of more leisure time.
  2. Will people view reduced consumption as a sacrifice or view it as leading to a better lifestyle? This begs the question of whether human nature can be changed. The answer is yes, that people are essentially socialized into new lifestyles as economic condition change. More people have moved from rural life styles to urban life styles and changed accordingly. People will be able to find new pleasures to replace older pleasures that have died out. Marketers are always ready to help shape new pleasures.
  3. Does Capitalism need to be replaced by another system? My answer is no but Capitalism does need to be changed. Look around the world and you will find all types of Capitalism. If we assume that the test of good Capitalism lies in the number of healthy, educated and happy people it could produce, then the answer is that countries need to move to Nordic Capitalism. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland all have populations of healthy, highly educated and happy people. Their citizens pay higher taxes and receive in return free health services, free college education, five week vacations, maternity and paternity paid leaves, and generous childhood benefits. Nordic citizens don’t have to be stressed out about health and college costs, lack of available houses, and other pleasure killers (22).


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