At what Cost Christmas: Is Social Marketing the Answer?

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Professor Sally Dibb, Centre for Business in Society

With the Christmas festivities fast approaching, as you head to the attic to unpack the tinsel and festive lights, give a little thought to the cost of Christmas. Last year, the typical UK household Christmas spent £429 with many people borrowing to cover the cost (Money Advice Service, 2016). This is against a backdrop of a tripling personal debt in 15 years, with the poorest in society spending over one quarter of their annual income repaying debt (Centre for Social Justice, 2013). Victims of family breakdown, those with mental health or addiction problems, and people with low literacy and numeracy levels are especially vulnerable (Watt, 2013).

As the turkey cools, the reality of Christmas spending can start to bite. At the break of New Year we are blitzed with texts, emails and adverts from credit card firms, pawn brokers, pay-day lenders and worse; promising to smooth away our financial woes. According to the Money Advice Service, at the start of the year, over a quarter of us are struggling with our finances. And Christmas spending is often to blame.

We live in times of hyper-consumerism. Aggressive marketing is frequently blamed for our financial woes. Too often we are beguiled by the latest smartphone or find those trendy trainers hard to resist. As many of us struggle to peg back our spending, credit – particularly the wrong kind – is readily available. Perhaps it’s no surprise that we are tempted to acquire another store card or turn to pay-day lenders to sort out our financial crisis.

Getting on top of our finances can be tough. Sometimes we can’t control the causes of debt: redundancy, unexpected illness, changes in family circumstances, stagnating wages and public sector cuts, can all play a part. Many of us also lack the basic skills to budget and make robust financial decisions in the first place.

Help from a surprising quarter

Just as marketing is often blamed for these problems, a different kind of marketing can also help solve them. Social marketing uses commercial marketing tools and ideas to tackle the ills of society. Instead of using these approaches to build brands or to promote the latest products, social marketers use them to change behaviour to improve our wellbeing.

This approach is widely used to promote good health, encourage more sustainable living, and persuade us to pay our taxes on time. The government’s Change4Life health initiative, and campaigns to promote smoking cessation, encourage healthy eating, and reduce harmful alcohol consumption, often use social marketing ideas.

Social marketing can also be used to help us manage our personal finances. Instead of tempting us to splash cash that we don’t have, or to build a debt mountain that will send us into the arms of a doorstep lender, this kind of marketing can help us regain control. Social marketing can do this by changing behaviour such as improving our ability to budget, making us better able to choose between financial providers, or more discerning about the difference between good and bad debt.

Nudge, educate, regulate

Here are three ways in which social marketing can make a difference:

  1. ‘Nudge’. Many of our decisions are made automatically or instinctively, with little deliberate thinking. By presenting options or choices to us in a different way, we can be ‘nudged’ to behave differently. For example, a financial nudge might flash a reminder to pay the gas bill as we browse our favourite shopping site. The reminder might be repeated when we add items to our shopping basket.
  2. Educate. Evidence suggests the under 40s are less financially capable than their elders. Campaigners have called for better financial education in schools to combat this problem; including teaching kids to budget and make decisions about financial products like student loans and savings. But those already in debt also need help. Financial education that is carefully tailored to the needs of different segments can help to tackle this problem.
  3. Regulate. As well as changing individual behaviour, social marketers build evidence that can influence policy makers to change laws and regulations. Evidence about the hardship caused by payday loans, for example, was the impetus for new rules that the Financial Conduct Authority is implementing to control the sector.

To sum up how social marketing can help, think of financial problems and debt as being a bit like a snake in the grass. Nudge can help you sidestep the snake without thinking too hard about it; education gives you the know-how and tools to try to outwit the serpent; while regulation enlists the help of someone with bigger feet to trample it.

So which of the three works best? The answer is none of them and all of them! A combined approach that uses a range of methods to change our financial behaviour in conjunction with regulatory changes is most likely to be effective in the long term. Which is just as well, given we need all the help we can get.

Find out more

You can learn more about how to manage your personal finances from the Money Advice Service (MAS). They provide advice on topics like budgeting, managing debt and making the most of your savings. They offer specific advice on surviving Christmas spending:

Other useful sources of advice are available from charities such as The Money Charity and Citizen’s Advice Bureau:

The Open University offers free access to online learning about how to manage your money:

You can do the BBC’s debt test here:

Find out more about social marketing and nudge in the following places:

Dibb, S., (2014). Up, up and away: Social marketing breaks free. Journal of Marketing Management 30(11/12), 1159-1185.

Dibb, S. & Carrigan, M. (Eds.) Social marketing transformed – Kotler, Polonsky and Hastings reflect on social marketing in a period of social change. European Journal of Marketing, 47 (9), 1388-1393.

Gordon, R. (2011). Critical social marketing: Definition, application and domain. Journal of Social Marketing 1 (2), 82-99.

Hastings, G. (2007). Social Marketing: Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes? Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Thaler, R.H, & Sunstein, C.R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Centre for Social Justice (2013), Maxed Out: Serious Personal Debt in Britain, 19th November , available at:

Watt, N. (2013), Soaring UK personal debt wreaking havoc with mental health, report warns, Guardian, 20th November, available at:

Sally Dibb is Professor of Marketing and Society in the Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University and Visiting Professor at the Open University Business School.



Coventry University