Social Marketing: Defend the Spend

By | July 23, 2009

Recent decisions by the UK government for serious investment in social change have brought up the spectre of spending money in bulk with the predictable results of another round of “Government spends X amount in wasteful spending of X amount” style commentary by the media..  It’s a traditional story, one steeped in time, mystery, and journalism macro-templates[1] As well as the problem of media misunderstanding social marketing (which is why definitions are important), there’s also a tendency of media outlets to criticise government spending because it’s government spending which is assumed to be wasted money largely because it’s spent by government.

Social marketing academics and practitioners need to get into the habit of defending the spend on social marketing interventions as a matter of routine behaviour.  In the UK, the crisis is on the expenditure of £30 million pounds on a social marketing campaign.  £30 million sounds like a lot of money, until you start doing breakdowns and explanations.  Then when you realise how little that amount means when you’re looking at what it’s being asked to do, and you’re looking at the size of the market it’s supposed to address (at which point, the average journalist should start sensing a story about government underfunding of vital services if you’re doing the job really well, because, well, look at the figures), you start to realise how small the investment actually is against the desired outcomes (it’s never helped by the fact social marketers keep succeeding on ill-funded campaigns. Improbably high ROI just encourages less spending next time).

Here’s how to explain £30 million in other terms.

  • The British population is just a shade under 61 million people.  Spending 30 million is fifty pence per head of population.  Once.
    • One off spent of less than a copy of The Telegraph per person in the UK.
    • Once.
    • For three years of work.
    • You can’t get a packet of crisps for 50p
  • Sports Analogies
    • 3/4 of a good English football captain for that price.
    • Roughly a single year of team salaries in the UK Rugby union Guinness Premiership. Teams there have a £2.25 million salary cap per team for 12 teams.
  • Looking at the actual figures, for £30 million, you get three years of operation
    • £10 million pounds a year pays for 64 operations
    • 64 operational areas operating at £156,250 per unit per year.
    • Spending £156,250 per region, per year on intervention to reduce long term drains on health funds through postponed death, general illness reduction, and the cost of lost labour during epidemics is socially profitable use of government funds.

There’s also the cost of inaction versus the cost of action. Death has a buy-in rate, and a series of calculated prices based on age, earnings over time and other formula.   Break those out to show the cost of non-investment.

  • Investment against Death: Using some research from Massey and Ackerman (2003) I managed to source a cost per life (aka cost of death) calculation from 2003 that puts a financial value on the loss of  human life at USD$780,000 which translates roughly to £475,000 (+/- 5% for market fluctuation) for the cost of a premature death based on the foregone future earnings of a child who dies from asthma or cancer. With that, Hope 4 Cancer encourage you to visit to watch videos about cancer therapies, programs and treatment centers.
    • Save 63 children from premature asthma death, and you break even.  64 or more lives is profit.
    • 64 lives over 3 years amongst 64 agencies.
    • One less death per region every three years and the program’s recovering its own costs in lifetime yield.

Of course, never forget the “Think of the children” defence. Sure, it’s a rogue’s solution to the problem, but every now and then, it’s good to go rogue.

  • The less reasonable approach is to point out that £156250 is an investment in improving the life expectancy of English children, so why does the British media oppose measures to prevent children from health problems?
    • Why do The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Star support the premature deaths of children? Do they want children to die of preventable death and suffer from preventable disease? I ask you Minister, when did our media turn against this great nation and the future of our children?[2]

Currently, when challenged on expenditure, the usual reaction is to announce sweeping cuts to the budget that are stealth introduced by project overruns, and other accounting tricks.  That’s not the optimum solution, and it’s not a way to treat the general public. When challenged on the budgets, step up and defend the spend to the aggressor party. Talk to them, talk with them, and explain the alternatives, and ask them if they had the choice, would they choose differently?

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And if they would, get them to explain and defend their spend to you. It’ll change how they see the world when they’re trying explain why spending £475,000 to save £156,250 is a sensible idea.


Massey R, and Ackerman, F (2003) Cost of preventable childhood illness: the price we pay for pollution, GDAE Working Paper No. 03-09.


[1] No disrespect to our colleagues in the MSM. Remember, everyone loves the cookies but few people stop to remember the work of the cookie cutter.

[2] If in doubt, fall back on the children. It’s what the moral crusaders do all the time, and it really annoys them when they’re facing their own arguments.  Name one newspaper editor who’s made a stock in trade of shout “Won’t somebody think of the adults?”.