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3. Social Norms Marketing

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 Summary:

  • Social norms marketing is an approach to alcohol education that attempts to change or correct prevailing norms within a population.
  • Social norms programs apply a marketing approach to changing behaviors.
  • Targeted primarily at young people, the approach attempts to provide an accurate view about the reality of drinking among their peers and reduce the misperception that excessive drinking (and drinking in general) is widely prevalent.
  • Currently, the social norms approach has been implemented primarily on college and university campuses in the United States.
  • As an effective harm reduction strategy, social norms marketing could be applied to a number of other contexts surrounding drinking where perceptions may change behavior.
  • For examples of interventions, see the online database Initiatives Reporting: Industry Actions to Reduce Harmful Drinking.

Several shifts have occurred in the alcohol education field during the past decade. There has been an increased focus on evidence-based approaches; it has been recognized that a population-based focus needs to be balanced with one that embraces harm-reduction measures; and an increased attention has been given to the environment in which drinking behaviors take place.

Social norms marketing falls into the third category of these shifts that addresses the environment. The approach is based on an attempt to modify societal norms through institutional and public policy measures, as well as through programs that seek to promote positive change in drinking patterns by correcting misperceptions of prevailing alcohol consumption behaviors.

Defining "social norms marketing"

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Social norms are the perceived standards of acceptable attitudes and behavior prevalent within a community. Social norms marketing uses commercial marketing techniques in an effort to modify or correct normative beliefs about a certain behavior, and ultimately change behavior in a positive way. There is evidence that social norms marketing is a promising approach to alcohol education. 

To date, most social norms marketing has been targeted at young people, particularly on university and college campuses in the United States (e.g., Haines, Perkins, Rice, & Barker, 2004; Perkins, 2002; Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). The approach is based on the finding that, when it comes to alcohol consumption, most students on college campuses tend to overestimate their peers’ drinking, both in quantity and frequency (Moreira, Smith, & Foxcroft, 2009; Perkins, 1997; Perkins & Berkowitz, 1986; Perkins, Meilman, Leichliter, Cashin, & Presley, 1999). As a result, young people are likely to drink in a way that they wrongly believe emulates that of their peers, generally through increased consumption. Correcting these misperceptions can help reduce heavy drinking and harmful outcomes (Moreira et al., 2009; DeJong et al., 2006; Fabiano, 2003; Haines & Spear, 1996; Haines & Barker, 2003; Haines et al., 2004; Jeffrey, Negro, Miller, & Frisone, 2003; Johannessen, Collins, Mills-Novoa, & Glider, 1999; Perkins & Craig, 2002; Perkins & Wechsler, 1996). 

Theoretical explanations for such misperceptions of peer behavior suggest that people are inclined to see the behaviors of others as “typical.” Excessive drinking, therefore, may be perceived as normal rather than an exception (Perkins, 1997).

Applying social norms marketing

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Like many other measures applied in alcohol education, social norms marketing is most commonly targeted at young people ( MODULE 1: Alcohol Education ). Mass media and other communications techniques are used to change and correct the perception among young people about their peers’ drinking. These measures have been used most commonly on university and college campuses to reach large numbers of young people. By promoting the notion, based on evidence, that the majority of young people do not drink and that those who do drink do so moderately and safely, the approach has been successful in reducing harmful drinking patterns (e.g., DeJong et al., 2006; Haines, Barker, & Rice, 2003; Hansen & Graham, 1991; Linkenbach & Perkins, 2003; Perry, Kelder, Murray, & Knut-Inge, 1992; Turner, Perkins, & Bauerle, 2008).

Well-designed social norms marketing programs are implemented in four stages (Haines et al., 2004):

1. Data collection

  • Collect data about the drinking patterns of the target population, including quantity and frequency measures, outcomes, and prevailing perceptions.
  • Identify protective, healthy behaviors already prevalent in the target population.

2. Development of intervention strategy

  • Conduct market research to determine what media are most commonly used by the target populations, where, and what they perceive as credible and are likely to remember.
  • Select most appropriate medium to be used for message delivery and develop a marketing plan.
  • Develop a prototype message that is simple, positive, truthful, and consistent; refine approach following the test run.

3. Implementation

  • Implement a marketing campaign that delivers messages frequently and consistently.

4. Evaluation

  • Assess the extent to which messages reach target audience, how well they are recalled, and what reaction they elicit.
  • Collect and analyze outcome data to assess effectiveness and impact on drinking behaviors and outcomes.

Currently, social norms programs include a range of approaches that have been applied on university campuses in the United States:

  • Intensive communication campaigns through newspaper advertisements, posters, flyers and leaflets, editorials, letters to the editor, and articles addressing prevailing perceptions surrounding drinking norms and factual information to correct misperceptions, where necessary (Haines & Barker, 2003).
  • Messaging aimed at correcting misperceptions of norms, such as the ones below, from the University of Virginia:
    • “64% of UVA students have an average of 0–5 drinks per week (27.6% have 0 drinks per week).”
    • “The average BAC of UVA students while drinking is 0.04.”
    • “95.9% of UVA students who drink have NOT gotten into a fight due to their drinking.” (See the website of the Office of Health Promotion, UVA.)
  • Cash incentives for students who have posters on display so others may see them.

Impact of social norms marketing

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Evaluation of the social norms approach has shown promising results among young people on university and college campuses. Decreases have been reported in heavy episodic consumption of alcohol, as well as in the incidence of injuries to self and others (e.g., DeJong et al., 2006; Fabiano, 2003; Haines & Barker, 2003; Moreira et al., 2009; Perkins & Craig, 2002; Turner et al., 2008).

Social norms marketing has also been adapted for use in other settings and with different target audiences. Programs have been developed to address drinking among younger groups, such as students at the secondary school level (e.g., Haines, Barker, & Rice, 2003), who have similar misperceptions about their peers’ behavior (Beck & Treiman, 1996; Thombs, Wolcott, & Farkash, 1997). Programs have also been used to address other risk behaviors such as drinking and driving (Perkins, Linkenbach, Lewis, & Neighbors, 2010). Other programs focus on drugs, smoking, and sexual violence.

While social norms interventions have shown positive results in a number of diverse settings, they also have shortcomings. Since they rely on a harm-reduction approach, social norms programs have little applicability and relevance in settings that promote an abstinence message. Although social norms marketing is relatively inexpensive when compared to other community-based alcohol education measures, it still requires resources in terms of program development, monitoring, and evaluation. In some countries where resources are scarce, this may be difficult to achieve. Social norms programs can also be difficult to replicate because each program is tailored to a specific target audience. Recent research has called the effectiveness of social norms programs into question, in part because of replication failure (DeJong et al., 2009). Additionally, research has found that environmental factors may play an important role in the effectiveness of social norms marketing (Scribner et al., 2011).

References

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Beck, K. H., & Treiman, K. A. (1996). The relationship of social context of drinking, perceived social norms, and parental influence to various drinking patterns of adolescents. Addictive Behaviors, 21, 633–644.

Botvin, G. J., Griffin, K. W., Diaz, T., & Ifill-Williams, M. (2001). Preventing binge drinking during early adolescence: one- and two-year follow-up of a school-based preventive intervention. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15, 360–365.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonsen, N. R., et al. (2006). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67, 868–879.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonsen, N. R., et al. (2009). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking: A replication failure. Substance Abuse, 30, 127–140.

Fabiano, P. (2003). Applying the social norms model to universal and indicated alcohol interventions at Western Washington University. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 83–99). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Haines, M. P., & Barker, G. (2003). The NIU experiment: A case study of the social norms approach. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 21–34). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Haines, M., Barker, G., & Rice, R. (2003). Using social norms to reduce alcohol and tobacco use in two Midwestern high schools. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 235–244). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Haines, M. P., Perkins, H. W., Rice, R. M., & Barker, G. (2004). A guide to marketing social norms for health promotion in schools and communities. DeKalb, IL: National Social Norms Resource Center.

Haines, M. P., & Spear, S. F. (1996). Changing the perception of the norm: a strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students. Journal of American College Health, 45, 134–140.

Hansen, W. B., & Graham, J. W. (1991). Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents: peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, 20, 414–430.

Jeffrey, L., Negro, P., Miller, D., & Frisone, J. (2003). The Rowan University social norms project. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 100–110). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Johannessen, K., Collins, C., Mills-Novoa, B., & Glider, P. (1999). A practical guide to alcohol abuse prevention: A campus study in implementing social norms and environmental approaches. Tucson, AZ: Campus Health Service, University of Arizona.

Johannessen, K., & Glider, P. (2003). The University of Arizona's campus health social norms media campaign. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), Social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 65–82). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Linkenbach, J. W., & Perkins, H. W. (2003). Most of us are tobacco free: An eight-month social norms campaign reducing youth initiation of smoking in Montana. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), Social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 224–234). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Moreira, M. T., Smith, L. A., & Foxcroft, D. (2009). Social norms interventions to reduce alcohol misuse in university or college students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 3.

Perkins, H. W. (1997). College student misperceptions of alcohol and other drug norms among peers: Exploring causes, consequences, and implication for prevention programs. In Designing alcohol and other drug prevention programs in higher education: Bringing theory into practice (pp. 177–206). Newton, MA: Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.

Perkins, H. W. (2002). Social norms and the prevention of alcohol misuse in collegiate contexts. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, (Suppl.14), 164–172.

Perkins, H. W., & Berkowitz, A. D. (1986). Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students: Some research implications for campus alcohol education programming. International Journal of the Addictions, 21, 961–976.

Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2002). A multifaceted social norms approach to reduce high-risk drinking: Lessons from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.

Perkins, H. W., & Craig, D. W. (2003). The Hobart and William Smith College experiment: A synergistic social norms approach using print, electronic media, and curriculum infusion to reduce collegiate problem drinking. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), Social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians (pp. 35–46). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Perkins, H. W., Linkenbach, J., Lewis, M., & Neighbors, C. (2010). Effectiveness of social norms media marketing in reducing drinking and driving: A statewide campaign. Addictive Behaviors, 35, 866-874.

Perkins, H. W., Meilman, P. W., Leichliter, J. S., Cashin, J. R., & Presley, C. A. (1999). Misperceptions of the norms for the frequency of alcohol and other drug use on college campuses. Journal of American College Health, 47, 253–258.

Perkins, H. W., & Wechsler, H. (1996). Variation in perceived college drinking norms and its impact on alcohol abuse: A nationwide study. Journal of Drug Issues, 26, 961–974.

Perry, C. L., Kelder, S. H., Murray, D. M., & Knut-Inge, K. (1992). Community-wide smoking prevention: Long-term outcomes of the Minnesota Heart Health Program and the Class of 1989 Study. American Journal of Public Health, 82, 1210–1216.

Scribner, R. A., Theall, K. P., Mason, K., Simonsen, N., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., et al. (2011). Alcohol prevention on college campuses: The moderating effect of the alcohol environment on the effectiveness of social norms marketing campaigns, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72, 232–239.

Thombs, D. L., Wolcott, B. J., & Farkash, L. G. (1997). Social context, perceived norms and drinking behavior in young people. Journal of Substance Abuse, 9, 257–267.

Turner, J., Perkins, H. W., & Bauerle, J. (2008). Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 57, 85-94.

University of Virginia, Office of Health Promotion. Social norms marketing. Retrieved September 12, 2011, from http://www.virginia.edu/studenthealth/hp/norms/stats.html.