Individual responsibility in the modern consumption world: Case of responsible drinking

Dr Samanthika Gallage, Lecturer, Staffordshire Business School

The focus of social marketing is to change unhealthy behaviours of consumers by applying marketing principles such as understanding the consumer, segmentation and targeting, marketing mix, exchange and competition. Despite the success of social marketing initiatives to adopt healthy behaviours, sustaining such behavioural change has become a major challenge. This is especially complicated for consumers due to various barriers such as conflict with their busy daily lifestyles, environmental constraints, popular consumption culture and immediate environmental factors. For example, a young adult consumer who is committed to drink responsibly might find it challenging to maintain it due to a heavy drinking culture in the university environment, social life that revolves around alcohol and peer pressure.  Social marketers and public health promoters acknowledge that behavioural change cannot bring any social transformation if it is not sustained. Thus, it is important to understand the complicated nature of the behavioural maintenance. Downstream, midstream and upstream factors of social marketing is a useful framework to analyse this (Kotler et al. 2002).

Source: Adopted from Kotler et al. (2002)

According to the figure above, social marketing interventions can focus on any of these levels. Downstream social marketing interventions target individual level behavioural change, midstream interventions address the immediate environment around the consumer and upstream interventions focus on macro environmental forces. It is worth exploring the effectiveness of these interventions to understand the success of our efforts in changing and maintaining unhealthy/irresponsible consumption behaviours. Let’s take promoting responsible drinking as an example.

Downstream interventions

In this context, downstream social marketing initiatives are encouraging consumers to comply with recommended levels of alcohol by highlighting the related health issues, communicating the associated risks and holding individuals responsible for their consumption decisions. In this approach, social marketers and health educators postulate that alcohol consumption is a rational decision. However, in many instances researchers have proved that drinking is linked to cultural norms and it is considered as a symbolic consumption decision which communicates social identification, rites of passage, and the celebration of rituals and festivities (Szmigin et al., 2011). In a drinking context, a young person would easily ignore the message of “drink sensibly” or he or she would not consider the responsible drinking limits that have been advertised by NHS guidelines (Giles and Brennan, 2015). Rather, they would consider drinking to excess is a heroic, rebellious and enjoyable experience that can later be shared with friends (Gallage et al., 2018). Therefore, even if consumers decide to change the behaviour, maintaining such behaviour becomes complicated. Thus, it is questionable whether downstream social marketing interventions that focus on promoting sensible drinking could contribute to the social change we expect to achieve. Similarly, in many health and social issues such as smoking, healthy eating, physical activity, recycling, individual responsibility alone might not be enough to achieve a social transformation.  Therefore, it is worth considering the other two intervention approaches together with downstream interventions.


Midstream and upstream interventions

Midstream and upstream interventions play an important role in behavioural change. In the case of alcohol consumption, midstream influences such as parental influence, peer influence and social affiliation has been identified as significant influences on drinking behaviour. Thus, these midstream factors need to be taken into consideration when developing social marketing initiatives. Further, upstream influences on alcohol consumption are dominating institutions of commercial marketing, alcohol marketing and alcohol advertising, regulations and development of a popular drinking culture (Szmigin et al., 2011).  To address these government has initiated some alcohol advertising policies, pricing policies and laws. It is evident that these behaviours are rarely the result of a single force. They are a result of broader environmental factors. Hence, the objective of social marketing should not necessarily be limited to individual behavioural change but should move beyond that and address community-wide holistic change by altering the environment. Thus, it is important not to exclude any downstream, midstream and upstream influences. The majority of the time these three layers are interrelated. Due to the complexity of issues at hand, the interaction of these factors are complex and multiple, ranging from unconscious and biological aspects to the broader level situational pressures, social class and culture.


Kotler, P. Roberto, N. & Lee, N. (2002), Social Marketing, Improving the quality of life, London: Sage Publications

Giles, E.L. & Brennan, M. (2015), “Changing the lifestyles of young adults”, Journal of Social Marketing, Vol. 5 (3), pp. 206-225.

Gallage, H.P.S. Tynan, C. & Heath, T (2018), “Out-group peer involvement on youth alcohol consumption”, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, Vol. 17(1), pp. e42-e51.

Szmigin, I. Bengry-Howell, A. Griffin, C. Hackley, C. & Mistral, W. (2011). Social marketing, individual responsibility and the “culture of intoxication”. European Journal of Marketing, Vol.45 (5), 759-779

Dr Samanthika Gallage

Staffordshire Business School

I am currently working as a lecturer in Marketing attached to the Staffordshire Business School. My research interests are in the area of social marketing, transformative consumer research, subsistence market places and critical marketing. Currently I am working on youth alcohol consumption in the UK, barriers in promoting condom usage in Asia and sustainable consumption issues in the African region.

If you are interested in any research collaborations, interventions, intervention evaluations please contact me via
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