The Health Impact of Targeted Marketing: An Interview with Sonya Grier

Sonya A. Grier is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Kogod School of Business at American University. She was previously on the faculty at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and was a Visiting Scholar at the Federal Trade Commission, where she provided consumer research expertise as part of a presidentially mandated team examining the target marketing of violent movies, music, and video games to American youth. She also spent a semester at the University of Cape Town in South Africa conducting research on social influences on consumer responses to targeted advertising.

In March 2010, Sonya Grier and her collaborator Shiriki Kumanyika published an article in the Annual Review of Public Health entitled, “Targeted Marketing and Public Health,” which explores the complex concerns raised for public health by the use of targeted marketing. In May, Corporations and Health Watch staff person Marissa Anto interviewed Dr. Grier about her interest in targeted marketing, recent trends in the field, and how public health advocates might better harness targeted marketing for their own purposes. What follows is an edited version of the interview.

CHW: How did you become interested in targeted marketing?

SG: I’ve always been interested in the different types of strategies that marketers use to reach specific groups and how they determine what different types of strategies are necessary. My first job out of college in the late 80s was as a market research analyst at Kraft and I remember asking why there wasn’t an ethnically targeted marketing campaign for barbecue sauce. Based on my personal knowledge, it seemed like there was heavy usage in the African American community and I didn’t see that reflected in the ad campaigns that were developed. That led me to understand, especially being a research analyst, how they were using data and information and putting it together to develop these types of strategies and that really started to drive my interest in targeted marketing. I also volunteered in a corporate program for non-profits, and I was assigned to help a Women of Color Theatre Group with audience development. The marketing issue there—this is again in the 80’s—was how to market something that might be perceived as an ethnic product to the core audience, as well to others who might be interested. So these are my first experiences in the professional field of marketing as a practitioner that really drove my interest specifically in targeted marketing.

CHW: In your Annual Review article, you define targeted marketing as “the identification of a group of people who share common needs or characteristics that an organization decides to serve” (p. 350). Can you explain what that means?

SG: My definition is based on the notion that if you speak to consumers in a way that resonates with the way they think, the way they talk, their attitudes, beliefs and values, they’re going to respond favorably to targeted marketing. That’s really the crux and most important part of it. Identifying when and how to do that is the challenging and creative part.

CHW: Why do you think this issue is important for public health professionals?

SG: Well, targeted marketing strategies influence behavior, which is a key goal of many health professionals. More specifically, targeted marketing can be used to influence commercial behavior such as getting people to buy a certain product, to influence health-related behavior such as increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, or some combination of the two. Targeted marketing often influences attitudes and reinforces people’s beliefs about what they think is normal. From a commercial perspective, it attempts to increase consumption of products or services. And this is the environmental context that people face daily as they try to listen to any type of public health message, so this is significant “competition” for public health efforts and that’s why it becomes very important. Think about obesity where people talk about food marketing being a negative influence. If the majority of the messages that come to you based on food marketing strategies encourage overconsumption of less healthy food or discourage physical activity; then this is a reality that people face and public health professionals need to understand the real day-to-day experiences of people in order to change their behaviors.

CHW: That leads into my next question: Are there ways that public health researchers can learn from industries that use targeted approaches to marketing? What do you think are some of the most important concepts we can learn?

SG: Definitely. One specific area is customer orientation, which is generally the basis of all marketing efforts and especially targeted marketing efforts. Marketers work to develop a profile of their target consumers, learning everything they can about the consumer from their perspective. This includes not only how people make choices about buying one specific product—and from a public health perspective, it’s not about just engaging in one specific behavior— but it’s also about how the desired behaviors fit into their lives and the kind of constraints people face, or believe they face. Everything is viewed from the perspective of the target audience. And this may not always be the same as what the professional ‘knows.’ Industry marketers also try to speak to target audiences in their own language, which is something that often doesn’t happen in public health. What I often see in public health is that specific actions are seen as right or wrong from a health perspective. So for public health researchers, a customer orientation might be letting go of preconceived notions of what is right and what is wrong and instead focusing on the person’s perspective, understanding how they make choices and what factors are influential to them.

CHW: What role do you think targeted marketing plays in maintaining or exacerbating disparities in health?

SG: I will use an example from the area I am currently working in which is obesity. The prevalence of obesity in African American and Hispanic children and adults is significantly higher than in White populations. We know this disparity is due not only to differences in income and education, although those factors might play a role. Social marketing programs aimed at obesity prevention often promote increasing the consumption of healthy foods and decreasing that of less healthy foods. So we have to think about what the role of targeted marketing of these less healthy foods is. As I noted, commercial marketing can be in competition with desired behaviors from a public health perspective. So commercial marketing can serve to hinder or prevent prevention. Say there’s a billboard that says, ‘Don’t let your children eat unhealthy foods’ and then right next to it is a billboard for fast food, advertising this very appetizing thing for $1. Which one is going to have the most sway and persuasiveness? Which one is a person going to see a lot more of? Understanding that context becomes really important because it can serve to prevent prevention.

I did a paper with Shiriki Kumanyika in 2008 called “The context for choice: health implications of targeted food and beverage marketing to African Americans” where we conducted a systematic review of the marketing environment for African Americans and we looked at the literature on food and beverage products, promotion, accessibility and prices targeted at African Americans as compared to White consumers. We found that targeted marketing strategies may challenge the ability of African Americans to eat healthfully. The strategies that were directed towards African Americans emphasized low-cost, low-nutrient food products like candy, soda, and snacks, and they were less likely to contain health-oriented messages. We also found that distribution and pricing strategies constrain the ability of African American consumers to purchase healthy food. It’s a challenge for any consumer to eat healthfully when their choices are constrained and they don’t have access, and prices are a lot higher or they are not made aware of these other products.

CHW: Can targeted marketing ever promote health or reduce disparities?

SG: Yes. Targeted marketing is a strategy, it’s a tool, it’s a set of practices and procedures that you put together to reach a particular goal; it’s not necessarily for good or for bad, it’s just a strategy someone uses and it can definitely be used to promote health. Health is a large component of the field of social marketing which has focused on using marketing to promote health, including the reduction of disparities as a goal. [Editor’s note: For more on social marketing and public health, see an article on this topic that Dr. Grier co-authored.]

CHW: Can you discuss some of the most compelling examples where targeted marketing has promoted health and reduced disparities?

SG: One example is the VERB campaign, which was created to increase physical activity in tweens. It was targeted at tweens but it also put particular focus on ethnic minority tweens, especially Hispanic tweens and African American tweens. Some of the research shows that it was effective in improving behaviors.

CHW: How do you think targeted marketing strategies have changed over time? You’ve been in this field since the late ‘80s. What are some of the shifts you’ve seen in the use of targeted marketing to get consumers to use different products?

SG: I think that strategies have moved from relying on one demographic variable like age, race, or gender to thinking about combinations of variables. So advertisers are now getting more into lifestyle and other variables to target a market. They’re not going to target me as a Black person or as a woman or as a baby boomer, but rather, perhaps, as a person who likes live music, buys health foods, and shops at Trader Joe’s, and all these others types of variables. Because there is so much more known now, and this is driven by technology. You also have the micro-targeting of media outlets which has created all these vehicles where you can reach particular groups of people. People can now live in their own marketing worlds without really knowing what’s going on in other worlds. What one group sees may be systematically patterned relative to what another group sees. And we can only to expect this to increase as marketers look for ways to be successful in increasingly competitive marketplaces.

CHW: How has the public health community sought to modify the harmful aspects of targeted marketing? What do you think of counter-marketing?

SG: Counter-marketing is really emerging as an important strategy to modify corporate practices that harm health. By counter-marketing, I’m assuming that we’re talking about the use of marketing techniques to try to un-sell a product or to destroy demand for a product. Research suggests that counter-marketing can be effective. The Truth campaign, for example, exposed the marketing practices used by the tobacco industry and then positioned this information in a way that spoke to youths. They did this by focusing on some of the core values for young people, like a desire for independence and individuality. This is a clear case of the consumer orientation that I was talking about earlier. The Truth message was also marketed just like a commercial brand and it had money behind it and it looked like what the teens wanted to see. Research on the effectiveness showed that it influenced attitudes toward the tobacco industry and tobacco use, and contributed to a decline of smoking prevalence. Research also shows that it was cost-effective because it recouped its cost and averted future medical costs. But at the same time, counter marketing is not really a one-size-fits-all strategy, and would need to be adapted to the particular domain you’re going to use it in.

For example, the success you see in tobacco may not transfer to products like food and beverages. Cigarettes are harmful and it’s illegal to sell them to minors but that’s not the case for food and non-alcoholic beverages. And the foods that may be the least healthy, like fried foods and soft drinks, taste good, are inexpensive, convenient, and they’re the norm. Research has also shown that counter-marketing can contribute to boomerang effects. In terms of alcohol and illicit drugs, some research that shows that attempts at counter-marketing increased positive attitudes towards alcohol and drugs. There’s also research that shows that the industry may pursue efforts to undermine counter-marketing strategies such as forming partnerships or other strategies. I think the big picture is that commercial marketers face few counter-marketing campaigns relative to the messages that are out there that counter health. So that’s an area where research is needed to really understand how do you develop counter-marketing strategies that won’t have boomerang effects and be insulated from things that industry might try to do and that can be effective across different domains.

CHW: In your opinion, what are some of the most important research questions on targeted marketing?

SG: One would be research on counter-marketing. Another is the targeted marketing of healthy products. You often hear store owners say that they won’t carry healthy products because people won’t buy them. Is this because people aren’t aware of those products? Or haven’t received the same type of repetitive messages about the value of those products in a way that speaks to them as they have for less healthy products? Another question related to this is: How do some consumers maintain healthy eating although they might encounter the same marketing strategies that encourage overconsumption? Understanding ‘positive deviance’ may lend important insights. I’d also say at a broad level there is a need for research to understand the extent of corporate consciousness about the aggregate effects of the market strategies they use among particular segments. Do they know that following the basic tenets of marketing they may be providing different messages to different groups about what constitutes a normal and healthy diet? We don’t know. Sometimes there is a discussion of whether targeted marketing on the part of corporations is intentional or not. I know from my experience with corporations that they’re following basic marketing strategy. It’s not like they’re saying, “We’re going to go out and make African Americans and Hispanics fat.” But there is a whole complex web of things that work together and the question is, are they aware of and conscious of those aggregate effects?

Additionally, I think a very important area is digital targeted marketing, especially with regard to the potential negative health effects for ethnic minority youth. Digital media really supports the basic goal of targeted marketing, which is to resonate with consumer characteristics. These strategies may rely on, for example, identity-related concerns of adolescents. Marketers are recognizing both that ethnic minority youth are leaders in the use of a lot of digital media and also that they are fast becoming the majority of the U.S. population, so marketers are putting a lot of money and effort into marketing to ethnic minority youth. And these same youth are dealing with not only basic identity concerns but also ethnic minority concerns. Think about some of the location-based strategies that involve digital marketing. Through these kinds of strategies, marketers might give teens a coupon when they’re near a fast food restaurant via a mobile phone. Research shows that minority youth are frequent mobile phone users, and they’re more likely to live near a fast food restaurant or have one near their school. For these reasons, they are more likely to get a coupon and perhaps will buy something that is affordable and good-tasting but that may contribute to more weight gain in this population. This interaction between technology, health, personal characteristics, and marketing strategies in the digital realm seems like an area where much research is needed from across disciplines and paradigms, within public health as well as from the social sciences, economics, and business.

CHW: What are some current targeted marketing research questions you’re now working on?

SG: I am looking to identify the specific characteristics of African American and Hispanic youth that may make them more responsive to digital targeting, and examining the effectiveness of strategies that might harm their health. I’m also working with the African American Obesity Research Collaborative (AACORN) on a five-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. We’re using community-based participatory research (CBPR) to investigate how targeted marketing strategies encourage healthy eating at the community level.

CHW: What’s your opinion of the use of terms like “organic” and “green” to denote products as being healthy? Do you think it brings these products to a wider audience by making it more mainstream?

SG: I think it can confuse consumers because if there aren’t specific standards to say what it means to be “green”, what it means to be “organic”, what means to be ”all natural,” etc., people may not have an understanding of how these relate to their goals of eating healthier. And I think that’s really what’s needed: Information and knowledge that helps people understand how they can be healthier within the context of the environments that they face and the lifestyles they lead.

CHW: Do you think that corporations and commercial entities can be more responsible in their use of targeted marketing?

SG: Yes, definitely. That’s why one of my current research questions examines consumers’ consciousness of the effect of corporate strategies on specific target markets. Eventually, I want to look specifically at corporate consciousness. I mean, honestly, I’m not even sure they realize this. Companies may read in the newspapers that there’s more targeted marketing of soda to African American youth, but do they know that these are their strategies, that their strategies play a role in that? It’s such a contentious and controversial issue that it’s not like there is an open dialogue typically between companies and public health advocates in this domain.

CHW: Do you think there should be a more open dialogue and greater consciousness surrounding these issues?

SG: You see so much about targeted marketing to kids, but within targeting to kids, you have the sub-groups of African American and Hispanic children who are significantly overweight. A basic marketing principle is that you focus on the heavier users, because those are the people who will keep buying your products. In public health, you would think the focus should be on protecting those with the greatest need. So with all this concern about food marketing to children, there should be a heavy emphasis on looking more carefully at food marketing to ethnic minority youth and you don’t see that. You see lots of discussion of obesity disparities and the horrific statistics, but very little focused effort, especially effort that takes the community perspective as fundamental. From a political or policy perspective, perhaps you don’t get things done if you only focus on one group. At the same time, I don’t think public health can afford to play that policy game and ignore the need to understand these minority groups because if you look at what’s going on with the census, eventually these groups are going to be the majority. So you can ignore this at the peril that in ten years we still have very limited research on groups that by then will be the majority of the marketplace and at highest public health risk.

CHW: Thank you very much for your time and insight.

SG: Thank you for your interest in targeted marketing!

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