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Social marketing: why injury prevention needs to adopt this behaviour change approach
  1. Joshua D Newton1,
  2. Michael T Ewing1,
  3. Caroline F Finch2
  1. 1Department of Marketing, Monash University, Caulfield East, Victoria, Australia
  2. 2Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention, Monash Injury Research Institute, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Joshua Daniel Newton, Department of Marketing, Monash University, PO Box 197, Caulfield East, Victoria 3145, Australia; joshua.newton{at}

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Government agencies, public health organisations and the private sector are increasingly funding campaigns to encourage participation in sport. These campaigns frequently achieve moderate levels of success,1 yet many of the individuals who heed these calls to action may be ill prepared for the physical rigours of sport, especially when campaigns do not address how to participate in sport safely. This is not an idle concern; individuals with limited experience in their sport of choice are at increased risk of developing a sports injury, as are those who have recently returned to sport after a prolonged absence.2 Public health campaigns aimed at encouraging sport participation should therefore take into account the findings from the sports injury prevention literature so that those who adopt the campaign messages will be less susceptible to experiencing sports injuries.

What is social marketing?

One approach that could be used to transfer the learnings from the sports injury prevention literature to the broader population is social marketing. Social marketing refers to ‘the adaptation of commercial marketing technologies to programs designed to influence the voluntary behaviour of target audiences to improve their personal welfare and that of the society of which they are a part’.3 While it has been recommended as a strategy to prevent road accidents and trauma for some time,4 social marketing has not yet been widely applied to sports injury prevention.

Unfortunately, the term ‘social marketing’ is often applied indiscriminately to a range of mass media and health-promotion campaigns, obscuring both the nature and content of this method of behaviour change. As such, it is particularly important to appreciate the central features of the social marketing process (figure 1), and to understand how this process could be applied within the sports injury prevention discipline.

Figure 1

The social marketing process.

Maximise consumer value

One of the defining characteristics of social marketing campaigns is their focus on the exchange process.5 In exchange theory, consumers are perceived to be self-interested actors who are motivated to seek the largest personal benefit for the smallest personal cost.6 Exchange theory may initially appear more relevant to commercial marketing campaigns, where consumers compare the benefits associated with particular goods or services against their price. Nevertheless, those tasked with increasing safer sport participation may also benefit from adopting an exchange-theory mindset, for participants are unlikely to adopt safer sports behaviours if they perceive that the benefits arising from these behaviours are small, diffuse or costly.7 Thus, sports participation programmes should provide benefits that injury prevention experts and participants perceive to be of value.6 Indeed, according to Andreasen's SESDED framework,8 social marketing campaigns should offer participants a Superior Exchange that is Socially Desirable and Easily Done. This may entail changing policies or modifying the environment in addition to more typical intervention methods such as providing information or education.

Understand consumer motivations

Not all participants place the same value on injury prevention. As a result, a campaign that provides an attractive level of exchange for one group of participants may not provide sufficient value for another. Thus, social marketing campaigns are designed to be consumer oriented,5 with the design of the campaign being tailored to address the needs, motivations and desires of target populations.6 This process, which is referred to as audience segmentation, may also entail developing different campaigns for consumer subgroups to increase the likelihood that the campaign message will be enacted.6

Evidence that social marketing can work in a sports injury context

A recent sports injury prevention programme aimed at increasing helmet use among skiers and snowboarders at Colorado ski resorts exemplifies how social marketing can be used to motivate behaviour change.9 At the time of the campaign, patrons attending Colorado ski resorts did not consider helmets to be an essential item of equipment because they were not included in standard hire packages.10 Moreover, helmet use was not widely accepted.10 The sports injury prevention programme therefore applied several social marketing principles to encourage helmet use.9 First, the programme provided consumers with an attractive exchange by reducing the fiscal, temporal and social costs associated with wearing a helmet. For instance, free helmet loans were offered with standard ski or snowboard hire packages through a popular rental firm to reduce the effort and monetary costs of organising helmet hire. Moreover, a public relations campaign was conducted through national, local and specialist media to highlight the dangers associated with snowboarding or skiing without wearing a helmet. Second, segmentation was used to specifically target snowboard and ski instructors, for these individuals were identified as opinion leaders that could influence the behaviour of others. To this end, instructors were given helmets to wear free of charge.

The programme was ultimately successful in its aim of increasing helmet use.9 The percentage of consumers who included a helmet in their snow hire package was significantly higher among stores offering free loan helmets, with follow-up surveys suggesting that consumers who received a free loan helmet went on to use them while skiing or snowboarding. More generally, the percentage of skiers and snowboarders who were observed to be wearing helmets at Colorado ski resorts increased significantly over the four ski seasons that the program was conducted.

Taking advantage of the social marketing framework

Systematic reviews of the literature suggest that social marketing campaigns are an efficacious method of encouraging health-related behaviour change.11 As sports medicine moves towards better implementation and dissemination of its evidence-based practice,12 there will consequently be a need to make more use of this behaviour change approach. The challenge for the sports medicine discipline will be to determine how best to apply social marketing principles to the prevention of sporting injuries. Particular focus should be directed towards identifying how attractive exchanges can be achieved and on developing interventions that are truly consumer oriented.


CFF is funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Principal Research Fellowship. ACRISP is one of the International Research Centres for Prevention of Injury and Protection of Athlete Health supported by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).


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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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