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- 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.
- Implement a marketing campaign that delivers messages frequently and consistently.
- 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).
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