Using a social marketing approach to develop a pro-diversity intervention

Mitchell Campbell, PhD’21 was just a kid the first time he saw Minnesota’s anti-smoking campaign ad on television. “This grandpa is beckoning his grandchild to toddle over to him, and the kid walks right through him because it’s clear the grandpa is a ghost. It was devastating. It was effective. It taps into a specific motivation to get people to change their behavior.”

Mitchell Campbell wears a short sleeve, button-down, forest green shirt. He has closely cropped brown hair and a mustache.
Mitchell Campbell

As a student in Markus Brauer’s social psychology research lab, Campbell focused his graduate work on establishing a method for creating more effective pro-diversity interventions. In their latest paper, Brauer and Campbell show how applying a social marketing approach – like the one the anti-smoking campaign employed – can be effective in the prejudice and discrimination domain, something researchers in that area hadn’t yet done.

“The social marketing approach says, ‘let’s design an intervention that will be especially effective for particular individuals to do a particular behavior in a particular setting at a particular time,’” says Campbell. Could those same principles be used to develop effective pro-diversity interventions to change behaviors in real-world contexts?

In 2016, Campbell began holding focus groups with University of Wisconsin–Madison students to better understand the current campus climate. Coupled with climate survey data and observational field experiments, the team was then able to identity four necessary components of the social marketing approach to intervention: target behavior, target audience, and the barriers and benefits to participating in the desired behavior.

Headshot of Markus Brauer in a blue, collared shirt
Markus Brauer

That target behavior, they decided, was not to get rid of discriminatory behavior, but rather to promote inclusive behavior. “When we talked to students of color, nearly all of them said the most negative impactful experience on campus were times that they felt outright exclusion or felt abandoned by their peers, like being chosen last for group projects. These kinds of experiences affected them to a greater degree than overtly discriminatory behaviors,” says Campbell. Within that category of inclusive behaviors, researchers identified a set of target behaviors with high impact – from attending events on campus that related to diversity and inclusion to stepping in when witnessing discrimination or problematic behavior happening.

With only a small group of individuals contributing to discriminatory behavior on campus and another small group actively involved in promoting and engaging in inclusive behaviors, Brauer and Campbell identified their target audience as the large group of students who thought diversity was valuable but engaged in few, if any, inclusive behaviors.

As for barriers and benefits, Campbell says, “We asked, ‘What prevents them from engaging in those behaviors? What are the things we can tell them to make them more likely to engage in those behaviors? How will being inclusive be beneficial for them personally?’ And that determined what psychological constructs we wanted to tap.”

Their multifaceted intervention included everything from addressing social norms (sharing survey results that indicated that the vast majority of students embraced diversity and supported the university’s pro-diversity initiatives) to “utility value” (highlighting the numerous personal benefits that students will derive from reaching out and being inclusive to members of other groups).

Lastly, the intervention suggested concrete behaviors that students could engage in to promote inclusion. “Many students didn’t know what being inclusive meant,” says Campbell. “It’s easy to maintain an inclusive self-image when you have no objective metric to use. So we made it specific; if you really do have these inclusive attitudes and values, then you can do the following things. You can live out these values by engaging in these practices.”

The intervention itself appeared as a page to add to syllabi in university classrooms. “Classrooms were selected because it was an environment where many students of color reported having experiences of exclusion. It’s a place where you get a random sample of students and have plenty of opportunities for inclusion in the classroom,” Campbell says.

The evaluation study and its results are described elsewhere, but it is clear that the intervention increased pro-diversity attitudes and behaviors, improved the well-being of students from marginalized backgrounds, and reduced the achievement gap. Moving forward, Campbell encourages others to apply these ideas themselves. “If they do their own background research, their own situational analysis, they can use these social marketing tools to effect change.” Adds Brauer, “One-size-fits-all diversity training doesn’t work. If we want to get people to behave more inclusively, we need to take the organization’s context into account and design pro-diversity initiatives that target the psychological barriers of people in those organizations.”

To access a copy of the intervention, visit the Brauer Group Lab online at

This article originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Psychology Matters.