Key Points:

Accustomed to being seduced by the image-makers of this or that brand of fizz, burger, booze or car, we now face a battery of messages aimed at making us healthier, wealthier and wiser.

Social marketing campaigns are all the flavour.

And if you have a radio or television or read the newspaper you don't need Mark Champion, chief executive of Caanz (Communications Agencies Association of New Zealand), to tell you that.

"My impression," says Champion, "is there is a proliferation of it. There has been a far greater spend in the last five or six years on social marketing campaigns and there is quite a community of people in Wellington - Government and quasi-government areas - that has quite a strong focus on social marketing."

According to statistics compiled by Nielsen Media Research the ad-spend by Government agencies totalled $23 million for the first quarter of this year an annual spend approaching $100 million which will likely rise in 2008, election year. Though that figure doesn't take account of hefty discounts for big-spenders, the money being invested has been enough for ad agencies not based in Wellington to set up office there.

Land Transport New Zealand is the biggest spender and therefore, says its advertising manager, research scientist Paul Graham, has the biggest responsibility to deliver. It has a second prong to its armoury, explains Graham. In addition to working to change entrenched behaviours (the general thrust of social marketing), its campaign also reinforces the police enforcement aspect of road safety.

Yes, he agrees there are so many behavioural messages being fed to us there is a risk of overkill. The challenge is to have your message heard above the din. That comes down to the creativity of the advertising.

The increase of such advertising gives rise to complaints of a "nanny state" but Graham says he sees no evidence of burnout, where the public block out the messages. "People may say they hate a particular advertisement but then they can repeat the message, often word for word."

Recognition means only that. The tough part of the equation is getting us to act on it, difficult enough for retail advertisers the "Bugger" ad was perhaps more loved than it was effective let alone social marketers trying to sell what we don't really want.

There are two types of social advertising. Public information campaigns and social marketing. The first seeks a quick response for example the meningococcal B campaign to prompt parents to immunise their children whereas the latter seeks to shift entrenched habits and attitudes. The latter can take a generation, as it did for drinking and driving, to become a social taboo.

The term "social marketing" was coined in the United States in the 1970s. Work by academics such as Carlo DiClemente and Alan Andreasen on how to change addictive behaviour led the way.

DiClemente's interest arose from work he did on the process of change for smokers struggling with nicotine addiction. The Maryland University psychology professor, with colleague James Prochaska, created the Transtheoretical Model of Change, based on the belief that behaviour change was a process that had clear stages. Whereas the accepted wisdom was that people needed to hit rock-bottom and be motivated in order to change, DiClemente found even unmotivated people could be prompted to change if the stimulus were directed at the right place in the change process.

The view of behaviour change as a series of gradual steps rather than an all-or-nothing event was embraced by behavioural health specialists, counsellors and social marketers.

That provided the blueprint, says Jeff Clark, director of strategic planning at Clemenger BBDO, whose accounts include Alac (Alcohol Liquor Advisory Council), LTNZ (Land Transport New Zealand) and ACC. Achieving behaviour change among a large chunk of society takes persistence and planning. Using the example of Alac, Clark explains, the first task was to sensitise the public to the fact we do have a binge-drinking problem (slogan: It's not what we're drinking, it's how we're drinking). He calls this the "SEE" phase.

"New Zealand is the first country to attempt to tackle a binge-drinking problem so there is no international blueprint to refer to." Research (questions asked include, is it OK to be drunk?) determines when a "tipping point" is reached in the public consciousness that signals the move to the second phase - which the agency calls "THINK". It took 18 months to reach the stage where the THINK phase (now running) could be introduced.

"That shifts focus from the observation that New Zealand has a problem, to conceding that I could be responsible," explains Clark. "It moves it to personal relevance. This is the alter-ego campaign [the girl out on the town throwing down a couple of quick shots, who then picks up Denis from accounts; the male whose drunkenness affects sexual performance; the drunk father who humiliates his daughter at her 21st.]"

Self-recognition and acknowledging possible consequences are the goals of this phase. The girl out on the town could have ended up pregnant, with an STD or in the gutter, says Clark. The target audiences are young adults without children and the middle-aged. "Everybody thinks binge-drinking is a youth problem, the rite of passage thing, but [research] shows that kids model themselves on their parents and other adults so we have to correct that end of the market."

The third phase yet to come is called ACT and provides tools for those who recognise they have a problem and the fourth and final phase, MAINTAIN, will aim to reinforce the new, healthier habits.

But how do we know such campaigns work?

Patience is required and even then, for some campaigns we'll not get more than an impression. Some, such as Alac's binge-drinking campaign, are difficult to measure because the effects are so diverse A&E admissions, lost productivity, relationship failures.

The impact of road-safety campaigns is more tangible. The percentage of drivers stopped at police road checks who are over the limit is one measure, the ultimate one is the road toll. In 1990, 729 people died on New Zealand roads; at the turn of the millennium the figure was 426; last year it was 387.

Social marketing has grown because marketing works. Hence the huge marketing budgets of corporations to sell their cars, drinks or fast food. But just as they must sell a story around their products to maximise impact, so, too, must social marketers, who use the same tools to aim for a socially desirable outcome.

Sometimes, says Health Sponsorship Council chief executive Iain Potter, it feels like "going to war with a pop gun". It would be easy to give the public the information and hope they change behaviour but "we know that doesn't work very satisfactorily, otherwise none of us would be obese, none of us would smoke and none of us would drive like lunatics".

Besides, social marketers are usually making what's seen as a negative offer (don't eat that pie) and can't replicate another key factor of marketing accessibility. Potter predicts that within a short walk of most workplaces will be a dozen places where you can buy a Coke. "How do we do that for sun-safety, for alcohol responsibility? How do we make it easy? That's the bit we struggle most with and is why we rely, overly heavily in my opinion, on the information and advertising aspects."

The mental health campaign, Like Minds Like Mine, which began in 2000, has gained advertising awards, a Queen's Birthday gong for former All Black John Kirwan, and there have been reports of helplines being overwhelmed by callers.

It's done a great job destigmatising mental illnesses such as depression, says Potter, but the crunch will be whether we are more likely to change our behaviour because of the campaign, to employ someone with a mental illness or to rent them a house.

The Health Sponsorship Council came into being to combat tobacco marketing and promote the Smokefree brand. Tobacco control (where half of the council's $12 million budget goes), sun safety, cyclist and pedestrian safety, problem gambling and Healthy Eating (Feeding Our Futures) are areas it's currently working in.

It's likely the Government considers social marketing a win-win. "They feel as though they are doing some good," says Champion, "and it helps their public profile".

Some will see it simply as another front on which the state intrudes into our lives, possibly with the risk of social marketing becoming social engineering. Not so long ago the Singaporean Government ran ads advising of appropriate behaviour for buffet dining. The message was not to be greedy ("don't be Kiasu"), the ad depicting a diner marching to his table, an entire lobster overwhelming his plate.

David Walden, the head of TBWAWhybin (the inventors of Goldstein), doubts the Government will one day advise on public eating etiquette, but he notes the genre has expanded from messages designed to protect ourselves from external risk (seatbelts, speed, drink-driving) to marketing healthy living in order to combat illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

And what's wrong with that? he asks. With health costs ballooning and traffic accidents costing billions, putting money into the best weapon to combat the behaviours that fuel them seemed like good sense.

British professor Gerard Hastings said it best with the title of his recent book, Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes? "Above all, we know about competitive analysis," he told a 2005 conference in New Zealand, "that tackling smoking without hobbling the tobacco industry is like ignoring the mosquito in the fight against malaria, that fast-food marketing is part of the obesity problem and producing an alcoholic beverage described as 'vodka toffee' is going to encourage inappropriate drinking.

"We can take on these competitors because we understand marketing: we know where the bodies are buried."