Social marketers are interested in human behaviour. They seek to understand why we live our lives as we do, sometimes healthily as when we eat a good diet or take regular exercise, and at other times unhealthily as when we smoke or binge drink. Given that more than fifty percent of premature deaths are attributable to such individual lifestyle decisions, there is enormous potential for any discipline that can progress thinking in this area. Social marketing brings a unique perspective to the issue.
Marketing is typically concerned with behaviour in the limited area of consumption and the market place. However, from the discipline's beginnings, marketers have argued that their behaviour change thinking can also be applied to other contexts; as Wiebe famously argued, you can sell brotherhood like soap. So, just as Big Tobacco can use marketing to encourage smoking, so 'social marketing' can do the reverse. The same principles - of understanding the consumer, strategic thinking and building satisfying relationships based on emotional as well as rational benefits - can be brought to bear.
Social marketing also recognises that, although commerce brings many benefits, it can also cause harm to both the individual and society. Tobacco, which kills half its long term users, provides an extreme example of this, but other industries like alcohol and food are also coming under scrutiny. Social marketing's understanding of both the commercial and social sectors puts it in a unique position to provide realistic critiques, and identify intelligent solutions. This forms an important part of the growing field of critical marketing.
These realities informed Lazer and Kelly's original definition of social marketing:
'Social marketing is concerned with the application of marketing knowledge, concepts, and techniques to enhance social as well as economic ends. It is also concerned with the analysis of the social consequences of marketing policies, decisions and activities.'