Can Marketing Research Save Lives?

July 28, 2014

Written by:

Becky Quarles

David Almy, CEO of the Marketing Research Association, recently told participants at the Spring Symposium of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the MRA that he had searched in vain for articles on the value of market research. Yet I, along with many other market researchers, know that market research has enormous value when conducted and used properly. It can help companies increase demand for their products and become more profitable, improve brand image, and target messages more effectively. And sometimes, it can save lives.

Much of this life-saving research comes from the public sector, which conducts social marketing research or “research for good.”  There are many other examples of market research that have guided successful advertising and outreach campaigns in such areas as heart disease and cancer prevention, smoking cessation, diet and exercise. All of these campaigns have saved lives.


During the mid-1980s, I – along with my colleagues at a San Francisco research firm – saw the results of a study tracking the success of the first-ever HIV/AIDS prevention program – a program based on recommendations from a benchmark study we had completed nine months earlier.

The results were startling: Nearly nine in ten Gay and Bisexual men in San Francisco had adopted safer sex practices or cut down on the number of sex partners during the nine-month interval between the two studies. At first, the change seemed too good to be true, but the study had been carefully conducted with built-in controls and validity checks, and we had been able to connect positive changes in sexual behavior with recall of specific messages.

But the real confirmation of the power of our work came a few years later when epidemiologists reported a substantial drop in new HIV infections that could be traced to time of the campaign. Then, we knew that our research had, indeed, helped save lives.

The Key Insight:  The marketing research showed that many Gay and bisexual men were unhappy with the promiscuous lifestyle that was the norm in San Francisco’s Gay community. They yearned for more stable and meaningful relationships but were afraid that this would estrange them from their friends. Thus, the communications campaign sought to convince Gays that there was growing support for safe sex and monogamy.

Ironically, more than ten years later, I found myself conducting focus group research for a major metropolitan church, whose pastor had performed a Gay ceremony of commitment and whose pledges had dropped as a result. Every focus group moderator knows that they need to mask their emotions no matter what the respondents say. Although I had moderated many groups in past on every conceivable topic, this was a real test for me since I had played a major role not only in conducting the survey research in San Francisco but in formulating the recommendations for Gay monogamy (at the time, no one would have been brave enough to suggest marriage). Thus, I was really pleased when one of the strongest opponents took me aside after the groups to thank me encouraging him to express himself despite objections from more liberal members of the congregation.

Heart Disease

Since the early HIV/AIDS research, I have been involved in a many other successful prevention and social marketing campaigns on such topics as heart disease, cancer, early treatment of various diseases, transit ridership, early treatment of HIV, many conservation topics, and checkups; but one study stands out.

This study was conducted as part of an intervention in Wellsburg, West Virginia, which had the highest rate of heart disease in the nation. It was conducted as part of a wellness program sponsored by Bayer and Hill and Knowlton Public Relations. The baseline survey showed the depth of the problem: poor diets, smoking and lack of exercise. It also suggested programmatic and communication strategies for reaching and convincing residents to take advantage of the Wellness Program change their lifestyles. It also showed barriers to healthy changes among different segments of the population and recommended targeted communications to these segments.

This intervention offered residents the opportunity to participate in a Wellness Program. Not only were participation rates high, but statistics and physiological measurements taken among participants showed significant improvement. A tracking survey, conducted after about one year, showed that there had been profound changes in attitudes, behavioral intentions and behavior in the community as a whole. As would be expected, these effects were strongest for participants, but nonparticipants, especially the great majority aware of the Program, also showed improvement.

The Affordable Care Act in California

Most recently, we worked with Senior Fellow Larry L. Bye with NORC at the University of Chicago to develop an audience segmentation that was part of the baseline survey used to guide Covered California’s advertising and outreach campaign to enroll residents in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The Washington Post recently named California as the “best state in America” for its smooth rollout of the ACA. More than 2.5 million people signed up for coverage during the first six months of open enrollment; and more than 42 percent of those eligible to sign up, did so. Medicaid enrollment jumped almost 16 percent, but “California was one of only six states to grow their private insurance rolls more than their Medicaid numbers, even though they accepted federal dollars to expand Medicaid.”[1]

There is even better news: A new survey by the Commonwealth Fund[2] shows that the percentage of Californians without health insurance was cut in half during the Covered California’s open enrollment period (from 22% to 11%). By contrast, the U.S. uninsured rate dropped just 25 percent (from 20% to 15%). Clearly, a number of factors, including Covered California’s relatively bug-free website, contributed to this dramatic drop in the uninsured rate; but it is also clear that its research-based advertising and outreach program played a major role.

All of this experience has confirmed what I first learned years ago in San Francisco: Well-designed, properly conducted and intelligently used market research can, indeed, save lives.

Please contact me if you would like to learn more about marketing research for social good.

[1] Reid Wilson. “The best state in America: California for its smooth rollout of the Affordable Care Act.” The Washington Post, June 26, 2014.

[2] Chad Terhune. “Rate of uninsured Californians is halved under Obamacare, survey finds.” The Los Angles Times, July 10, 2014.