Good in 'Normal'
getting a surprise lesson--binge drinking and other risky behaviors
aren't popular. It's the new creed of "social norms marketing."
By Lynn Smith, Times
June 12, 2001
a junior at Cal Poly Pomona, was touched when the school sent her a
card for her 21st birthday in April. She was puzzled, though, as she
unfolded it and found some odd statistics. According to the administration,
46% of her classmates did not drink any alcohol at all when they celebrated
their 21st birthdays; of those who did, 70% of the men drank fewer than
five drinks and 71% of the women drank fewer than four.
it was the weirdest thing. You think when you're 21, you'll go party,"
said the journalism major, who went on to celebrate her birthday in
Las Vegas clubs with friends. She stuck by her usual four-drink limit
and said she probably would have anyway. Still, she said, "the
card made you think about it."
Targeted by the
Cal Poly Student Health Services, Tucker was one of hundreds of thousands
of college students across the country subjected to the latest thinking
about how to reduce risky behavior among young people: Show them it's
The practice, called
"social norms marketing," has grown rapidly in the last three
years, along with the realization that scolding, scaring, educating
and even passing laws can't stop young people from harming themselves
and others. In sharp contrast to generations of adults who argued, "If
all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" the new theory
encourages the young to conform, since most of their peers aren't up
to much anyway.
is, we're herd animals and we behave in accordance with social norms
and the expectations of others," said H. Wesley Perkins, professor
of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., who
is known as the father of social norms marketing. "We're taking
conformity behavior and using it in a positive way."
has been almost no resistance to the idea in colleges and universities,
traditional bastions of individualism. "This kind of strategy would
never, ever have been tried 30 years ago," said Calvin Morrill,
professor of sociology, psychology and law at the University of Arizona
in Tucson, which has conducted one of the largest experiments to date.
"To try and market social norms, particularly if it were seen to
be from an administrative source. . . . It would have been laughable."
It is acceptable
now, Morrill said, because the nation is undergoing a pronounced uptick
in conformity, and the aims of social norms marketing--reducing binge
drinking, smoking, poor diet, unsafe sex, sexual assault and even social
bias--appear to justify the means.
Social norms marketing
grew from Perkins' 1986 report that students consistently overestimated
the amount other students drank, and that misperception predicted how
much they themselves drank. A study last year by the Newton, Mass.-based
Education Development Center confirmed that 69% of students in 18 schools
misperceived campus drinking rates: Although students reported drinking
4.7 drinks per week, they perceived that their peers consumed almost
twice as much.
tend to overestimate unhealthy behavior in others, in some cases because
they like to feel superior or because they need to justify their own
extreme behavior, psychologists said. Also, extreme behavior tends to
be remembered more often; and news events often leave disproportionate
impressions of problem behavior, Perkins said. As a result, most people
are "carriers" of misperceptions, he said.
To correct those
misperceptions, colleges and universities began to survey students about
their attitudes and actions. The survey results were then disseminated
through campus-based media campaigns modeled on commercial marketing
techniques: focus groups, ads, fliers and posters. Some campuses have
also used small group interventions.
Taken From Industry
Marketers out to
sell healthy behavior take their cues from industry, said Michael Haines,
director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois
University at DeKalb, Ill. "The industry rarely uses scare tactics
to get people to buy beer or blue jeans. They make it normal,"
A typical ad from
the University of Arizona shows laughing students with the message:
"Most U of A (69%) students have 4 or fewer drinks when they party."
The small print defines "a drink" and lists the source of
the survey data. A card in the Cal Poly registration packet tells students
that 77% of their peers had five or fewer drinks the last time they
In addition to posters
and ads, some colleges pay students who can recite the survey statistics
or have a social norms poster in their dorm room. At Hobart and William
Smith Colleges, the information appears as screensavers or on interactive
sites on campus computing networks.
At least 10 schools
using social norms marketing have reported improvements in student behavior.
Northern Illinois University claims to have reduced heavy drinking (defined
as more than five drinks at a party) by 44% in the last 10 years with
its campaign that featured the now-standard poster of smiling students
with the message that "Most men drink 0-5 drinks when they party.
Most women drink 0-3 drinks when they party." Alcohol-related injuries
and fighting fell as much as 76%. Perceptions of heavy drinking dropped
from 57% to 33%.
University of Arizona
student health officials said the school was dropped from the Princeton
Review's annual list of the nation's top 10 party schools after a similar
campaign aimed at faculty, administrators and parents as well as students.
Reported heavy drinking was reduced 29% in the last four years, officials
A more definitive
five-year, $4-million study of a social norms marketing campaign at
32 colleges is being conducted by the EDC in conjunction with the Golden
Key International Honour Society.
said about a fifth of all the nation's colleges and universities have
begun experimenting with social norms campaigns in varying degrees.
"Universities are under more pressure than ever before to do something
about the alcohol issue," he said.
A committee at the
California State University system, formed in December following the
alcohol poisoning death of a fraternity pledge at Cal State Chico, will
soon recommend a social norms marketing approach, said committee chairman
John Welty, president of Cal State Fresno. The state system is also
co-sponsoring the fourth annual social norms conference in July in Anaheim.
"As one who's
struggled with this issue for 30 years now, it does make a great deal
of sense," Welty said. "It removes some of the stereotypes
that often exist on campuses that all college students do is drink.
That certainly is not accurate."
"Animal House" perception of hard-drinking student life is
so pervasive that many students, such as Brandee Tucker, initially reject
the survey statistics. Tucker said many students found the statistics
on the number of drinks on her birthday card to be unbelievably low.
a New York psychologist, said that to keep students from rejecting the
survey findings, the schools need to find ways to underline their believability.
In Arizona, for
instance, marketers learned they needed to picture actual students in
a familiar campus location on their ads, rather than professional models
in a studio.
Minimizing a Serious Problem
have a few questions. How accurate are those surveys? Do the messages
encourage nondrinkers and moderate drinkers to keep up with the norm?
Isn't this just another educational fad?
principal investigator of Harvard's College Alcohol Study, an ongoing
survey of 15,000 students nationwide, said he worries that such attempts
oversimplify a complex problem. "There is a serious drinking problem
on American college campuses. From a public health standpoint, I would
not like to minimize a serious problem by saying most people don't do
University of Chicago
Law School professor Eric A. Posner, author of "Law and Social
Norms," is also skeptical whether social norms marketing would
work with small, heavy-drinking groups like fraternities or rugby clubs.
"It's true the vast majority don't binge drink, but the ones who
do because of social pressure are in a fraternity where everybody does
and they know it. They think, 'That's what makes us special compared
to the rest of the boring student body.' Learning about what the rest
are doing won't matter."
with social norms are encouraging, Posner said, but the phenomenon is
still so poorly understood that "one wonders how effective these
things are likely to be."
believes media campaigns alone are doomed to fail partly because they
can't prove that they made a difference over and above what was happening
in society anyway. In a four-year study of a campaign to promote healthier
diets in low-income Latino men, Morrill said those who received a media-only
social norms campaign ate half a serving more of fruits and vegetables
every day, following trends in the general population. Those who also
heard peer and health educators ate a serving and a half more. "That's
a huge difference," he said.
What's more, standards
like "five or fewer" or "six or fewer" don't always
strike everyone as low-risk drinking. In that case, schools such as
the University of Arizona advise shifting to messages from consumption
rates to alcohol-related behavior: "Most U of A students are safe
when they drink: 83% use a designated driver, 67% keep track of the
number of drinks they have, 71% do not drive under the influence."
Proponents of social
norms theory believe it holds special promise for reaching passive bystanders
who allow injustices because they mistakenly think they're in the minority.
A campaign to teach
people that the majority do not tolerate emotional, physical or sexual
violence, for instance, has the potential to "unleash the power
of the good in people that remains latent because they think they're
the only ones who think that way," said Patricia Fabiano, program
director of the Prevention and Wellness Services at Western Washington
In addition to an
alcohol awareness program, the school has also begun a violence awareness
program with posters such as: "It's a respect thing. It's a love
thing. It's a communications thing. Make it your thing. Most Western
students believe they can do something about relationship violence."
At James Madison
University in Harrisonburg, Va., posters were distributed with messages
such as "A man respects a woman: Nine out of 10 JMU men stop the
first time their date says no to sexual activity." The campaign
significantly increased the number of men who indicated they stop when
a date says no and a decrease among those who agreed that "when
I want to touch someone sexually, I try and see how they react."
A "Say Something"
campaign at the University of Iowa produced posters saying "67%
of UI students have had their studying or sleep interrupted by a loud,
obnoxious, drunken student. Say something!" The program was not
formally evaluated, but some students said that until then they hadn't
realized they had a right to speak up.
As the campaigns
grow, they are also spreading to target the attitudes of older adults.
In one case, the method was used to help parents enforce curfews. "Parents
think they're the only ones who impose a curfew. Most do," Perkins
The ways social
norms can be used to create a better campus environment are almost limitless,
said Drew Hunter, executive director of the Denver-based BACCHUS and
GAMMA Peer Education Network, which is working with 11 campuses to evaluate
social norm marketing in areas besides alcohol abuse.
"What we need
to understand is, more than anything else, students want to be perceived
Copyright 2001 Los