While studying public health, I have quickly learned no setting is perfect. Each community has its own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to improving and maintaining the health of its people. For example, South Africa is home to one of the first community health centers and uses centers today to help millions access health prevention and treatment services close to home. In Tanzania, partnerships between NGOs and communities have created effective and successful clinics which allow people to access affordable health services.
In courses, I have discussed notable authors, feminists and Pan-Africanists from Ghana, but never innovative or successful health improvement strategies. Therefore, when I came to Ghana, I tried to come with eyes wide open, searching for health improvement strategies which I and my community could learn from and possibly implement at home. I searched in NGOs, talked to people and explored schools for innovative techniques and pretty quickly, I noticed something.
When a lot of companies advertise a product, they do so by creating an image of the product’s user, suggesting a consumer will be happy or successful by buying the product. The billboards I saw, however, highlighted a different strategy: social marketing.
Social marketing applies commercial marketing strategies to promote public health. It uses “concepts and techniques drawn from the commercial sector to promote changes in diverse socially important behaviors such as drug use, smoking, sexual behavior…” (Evans, 2006). This phenomenon is not considered new in advertising. For example, one 1986 study found a substantial increase in the purchase of cereals which were advertised as being high-fiber compared to the same brand which was non-high fiber (Levi, 1987).
Along the street I saw one cooking oil brand which advertised its low cholesterol content. Soon, I noticed billboards everywhere attempting to sell products based on the fact that people want to improve their health. There were plenty of health-conscious cooking oils and other health-conscious products, as well as emergency contraceptive pills.
Even more informative for me, however, were the implications of these billboards. Since companies aim to make money and sell their products, they choose advertisements which will be the most successful and achieve the greatest returns. That suggests telling people a product can improve their health, for example by being cholesterol-free, likely increases sales. This shows that health implications for a product is one of the determinants for consumers deciding to buy that product. By this logic, if public health organizations continue to advertise and endorse healthy products, consumers will chose to buy them, therefore, improving health of the community.
Another observation I made about these billboard advertisements was that they all targeted women. While this may simply be because women are more likely to use the brands which were being advertised, to me, it suggested something much bigger. Targeting women in so many advertisements suggests companies know women have power and agency. Since men make up most of the formal economy in Ghana, oftentimes economic programs focus on men. These advertisements, however, have serious implications for economics and development as they show women likely drive much of the formal economy, a reality which cannot easily be seen through literature and a lesson I would not have learned without coming to Ghana.
6 Powerful Public Health Ads
Study which demonstrates that online advertisements hold promise as a mechanism for changing population health behaviors
Previously cited study which discusses the theory behind social marketing
Evans, Douglas W. “How social marketing works in health care.” BMJ (Clinical research ed.) vol. 332,7551 (2006): 1207-10.
Levy, Alan S., and Raymond C. Stokes. “Effects of a health promotion advertising campaign on sales of ready-to-eat cereals.” Public Health Reports (1974-), vol. 102, no. 4, 1987, pp. 398–403.