Joining us this academic year as Visiting Associate Professor is Dr Sameer Deshpande, from Canada. His research interests are in the fields of social marketing, health communication, advertising and culture. In this post, Assoc Prof Deshpande shares more about himself, his thoughts on social marketing, modern day health issues and causes he cares about.
Tell us a little about yourself – where you come from, what your research interests are and what brought you to NUS?
I am visiting from Lethbridge, Canada and was born and brought up in Mumbai, India. My research interests are in the areas of social marketing and health communication. In 1990s, there were very few schools in India offering courses in social marketing and health communication and that took me to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for my MA and PhD. Since graduation, I have been with the University of Lethbridge in Canada for more than a decade and was keen to explore universities which had a strong research focus and that were closer to India, which led me to NUS.
What modules do you teach?
This semester I am teaching two modules: ‘Corporate Social Responsibility – Research and Practice’ and ‘Managing Communication Campaigns’. NUS attracts students of high quality and this is evident in the class interactions with them. What brings joy to us educators, is the keenness and motivation to learn, and I am happy to see that with the CNM students.
What got you started on your field of research and what is your approach to research?
My research focus as I mentioned earlier is social marketing – which is the application of marketing principles to change behaviours and that includes but goes beyond communication tools. I have used that hammer of marketing for past 15 years in a variety of public health and environmental fields and incessantly asked myself how my academic research can address real-life social problems. Being in the west, the over- and irresponsible consumption of alcohol that grapples the society has led me to work on related projects such as reducing binge drinking on college campuses, driving after drinking, and drinking during pregnancy. A few years back I was also approached by a unit of the Canadian government to advise on their efforts to promote physical activity amongst Canadians called ParticipACTION. I have been on their national advisory board, which has led to a lot of publications in that specific area. In the Indian context, I have worked on research on family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.
What are some issues/causes that you care deeply about?
I care about these three issues:
Girl child education – According to Nobel laureate and the guru of developmental economics, Amartya Sen, educating the girl child is one of the most effective ways to achieve maximum social impact on the family and society in the long run. Governments, foundations and funding agencies need to pay more attention to this issue, especially in the low- to middle-income countries where literacy among girls remains low.
Water Conservation – One cannot imagine a world without water. Countries and states within them, are increasingly fighting with one another for water rights. Farmers are committing suicides in India due to water shortage. These disputes and wars will only grow in the future. So, appropriate water management is a critical issue that everyone needs to be mindful of. It begins at home and with each individual.
Mental Health – This is a pivotal challenge in the western world where the rates of depression are very high and they are on the rise now in other parts as well. Career-oriented outlook, nuclear families, loneliness, and reduced family time are some of the contributing factors. These issues cannot be and shouldn’t be fixed with just medications. It would mean that we better manage work-life balance and spend more time with family and less time at the office desk. I believe in Asia, family bonds are still strong. As a society, we should maintain these ties and ensure sound mental health.
Are there cultural differences in how policy makers view or approach research findings in high, middle and low-income countries?
While designing social marketing interventions, the policy makers in the west do a decent job in terms of research review, production, usage, and dissemination, whereas in a country like India the public sector lags behind on all of these fronts. In recent decades, the behaviour change efforts have been outsourced by the Government of India to the private social sector with funding from foreign funding agencies; as a result of international involvement, the social sector has witnessed a western style of research emphasis. However, both in the high- as well as low- and middle-income countries, the interest in knowledge documentation remains a problem. Projects are undertaken by a team that rarely documents its activities, experiences, and lessons learned. Unfortunately, once the project is completed, the team moves to a different initiative or leaves the organization and due to poor documentation, the knowledge is lost.
Despite good research emphasis, the western countries continue to misconstrue the essence of social marketing. In fact, when it comes to social marketing, countries like India show much better understanding of this framework. In the west there is a perception that all that marketing does is communicate through mass and social media channels, without attempting to provide alternatives to carrying out the desired behaviours. This contradicts how the commercial marketing sector conducts marketing initiatives; they go beyond communication; that communication is part of a much bigger package that they offer to the consumer. The confusion of social marketing in countries like India is of a different kind. There social marketing is confused as a framework that can only promote contraceptives. In reality, social marketing can promote a wide variety of behaviours and address several kinds of social problems. I tried to quell this misunderstanding in my 2013 book titled, “Social Marketing in India” by highlighting case studies from several contexts.
Your thoughts on non-traditional media of social marketing such as movies, social media challenges such as the Ice Bucket Challenge or observing Earth Day. Do they contribute to sustained behavioural changes?
Social change on social media platforms is overhyped, although there are advantages; the message can be tailored to the audience; it is can be interactive and fun-filled; it can spread to millions within a short time span; and it can promote online engagement, but it does not necessarily influence offline behaviours. To evoke offline behavioural outcomes, you need to address both external and internal barriers that prevent behavioural adoption. It takes more carefully thought out environmental strategies in order to bring about a change in behaviour especially on a sustained basis. There have been certain situations where celebrity endorsements have had a role to play, but they are just the tip of the behaviour change iceberg. Mass media endorsement needs to be followed up by massive on-the-ground community-based interventions.
An aspiring researcher should….
Do research in the areas that interests him/her rather than constantly stressing over what areas of research will result in publications. Adopt methodologies and philosophies that he/she feels comfortable grasping and using and apply those to contexts that he/she enjoys. Trust your abilities and honour your interests; if you are naturally inclined to do better in qualitative research rather than quantitative research then go for it; when you are good at it, you will enjoy it more, you will work harder, and your research will very likely get published in high impact journals. Motivation, passion, and interest should drive academic focus.
And, what about Practitioners?
Most practitioners are not aware of social marketing or that they can use this framework to bring about social change, so the first thing would be to raise awareness about this profession. Secondly, practitioners need to undergo good training in this area and finally, they must get down to the ground and seek in-depth understanding of the social problems as well as the individuals who create those. Being aware, equipped with good training, and being exposed to social issues through first-hand on-the-ground formative research will help them become successful social change agents and lead them to design effective behaviour change solutions.
When you are not researching or teaching you like to….
…spend as much time as possible with our young children. Back in Canada I was advising the city’s municipal government on a behaviour change initiative to convince parents/guardians to have at least 3 meals a week with their family. Research reveals that meals consumed together promotes positive mental health among children and prevents potential drug-dependence. So, my wife and I are particular about spending as much time with our children, especially during breakfast and dinner time. These days in Singapore, every weekend we as a family turn into tourists and visit some cultural or touristy place or attend such events.
How has the Singapore experience been so far?
Being in Singapore has been great so far, I am enjoying the climate which is very different from that in Canada, the multiculturalism and the exploration of diverse and fairly reasonably priced foods. It is satisfying to spend time in a research-oriented university like NUS and to share my knowledge with very motivated and smart students.