Much of this life-saving research comes from the public sector, which conducts social marketing research, or “research for good.” There are many 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 in San Francisco, when I was just getting started in marketing research, I analyzed the results of a study tracking the success of the first-ever HIV/AIDS prevention program – a program based on our 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 the time of the campaign. Then, we knew that our research had, indeed, helped to save lives.

The research showed that many gay and bisexual men were unhappy with the predominantly promiscuous gay lifestyle in San Francisco. 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.

Heart Disease

Of the many successful prevention and social marketing campaigns I have conducted since that early HIV/AIDS research, one stands out.

The study was part of an intervention in Wellsburg, West Virginia, which had the highest rate of heart disease in the nation. The baseline survey showed the depth of the problem: poor diets, smoking and lack of exercise. It suggested programmatic and communication strategies for reaching and convincing residents to take advantage of a wellness program aimed at changing 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 profound changes in attitudes, behavioral intentions and behavior in the community as a whole. These effects were strongest for participants, but nonparticipants, especially the great majority aware of the program, also showed significant improvement.

The Affordable Care Act in California

Recently, we worked with senior fellow Larry L. Bye with NORC at the University of Chicago to develop an audience segmentation for a baseline survey used to guide Covered California’s advertising and outreach campaign to enroll residents in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (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

Even better, a Commonwealth Fund survey showed that the percentage of Californians without health insurance was cut in half during Covered California’s open enrollment period (from 22 percent to 11 percent).2 By contrast, the U.S. uninsured rate dropped just 25 percent (from 20 percent to 15 percent). Clearly, a number of factors 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.

MR for Social Good

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


  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.

Get the PDF of this article.