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Northern Illinois University
44% Reduction over 10 Years

Project Description

Northern Illinois University is a public, land grant institution with approximately 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students. In the 1989-90 academic year, Health Enhancement Services at NIU began using social marketing methods to inform students that, contrary to what they believed, the majority of their peers were in fact moderate and safe drinkers.The primary target audience for the alcohol intervention consisted of student drinkers (85% of the 23,000 NIU students).

Project Funding Source

A grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) funded the implementation of this social norm marketing campaign. No additional outside funding was received.

Project Objective

To reduce alcohol-related physical injuries to self and others by increasing moderate consumption.

Baseline Data

Baseline data collection revealed that less than 50% of students reported heavy episodic consumption of alcohol. However, when asked how much they thought most NIU students drank, the prevalent perception was that about 70% of their peers engaged in such behavior.

Primary Normative Messages

(Click on any message in order to view that particular poster.)

Sample media with normative messages from the 2000-2001 school year included:

Sample media with normative messages from the 1998-1999 school year included:

Of course, normative messages can be disseminated in other than poster format. Here are two examples of flyers developed and distributed in various locations at NIU in order to promote the positive, healthy norms of its students:

Marketing Methods Employed

The NIU model inaugurated the use of social marketing techniques to deliver the social norm messages to the target audience as well as secondary audiences. Print media employed included newspaper advertisements (both display and classified), posters, flyers and leaflets, editorials, letters to the editor, and articles. One notable innovation of this program was the use of cash incentives issued to students who had posters on display in their rooms when contacted by a representative of Health Enhancement Services.

Northern Illinois University's Social Norms Alcohol Media Campaign for 2000-2001
Contains valuable and frequently-requested information regarding normative message development, as well as specific media channels and placement frequencies for the various print media employed: posters, campus newspapers, and handouts/fliers.

A Letter to Faculty (How to Present a Social Norms Campaign to Various Stakeholders)
Social norm campaigns are conducted in a rich environmental context that presents abundant opportunities and challenges. This useful document demonstrates how the NIU Health Enhancement staff framed and explained a social norm campaign to faculty -- a secondary campus audience that may itself be "carriers of the misperception." Essentially, it describes the theoretical basis of the social norms approach, solicits faculty collaboration by suggesting that everyone can support the true norm of moderation, and provides a brief explanation as to why data is consistently presented from a "glass mostly full" perspective. This is then followed by a series of data highlights from a then current health assessment survey. Note the predominant emphasis on positive norms throughout this data presentation.

GHB and MDMA (Ecstasy) Use Viewed in the context of Social Norms
Written in Spring 2002 by NIU's Health Enhancement staff for a university-wide Student Affairs publication, this article addresses a topic of emerging concern to many college health and student affairs professionals: the use of GHB and MDMA (Ecstasy) among students. It is provided here as an example of how to present information about this subject in the context of an ongoing social norm campaign. Note how the opportunity is used, first, to provide normative data from the campaign about the students' "drug of choice," alcohol, and then present data indicating that "the norm (what is true for most students) at NIU for both GHB and MDMA is non-use." Finally, a wealth of accurate information is provided about both GHB and MDMA.


At NIU, evaluation of the social norm intervention takes many forms. An annual, self-report health assessment provides pre- and post-testing data. However, other markers and measures are used whenever they can be identified and accessed.

Project Results

Survey data showed a 44% reduction in heavy episodic consumption of alcohol with similar decreases in injuries to self (down 44%) and to others (down 76%) during a ten year period from the project's inception. The city attorney of DeKalb reported major decreases in alcohol fine revenues due to fewer violations, the local liquor wholesaler reported a 50% decline in retail keg sales, and the campus police reported a decrease in alcohol-related offenses.

Available graphs showing project results include:

Projector Director

This project was directed by Michael Haines from 1989-1999.

Further Information

Haines, M. and G. Barker. "The NIU Experiment: A Case Study of the Social Norms Approach," (2003) in The Social Norms Approach To Preventing School And College Age Substance Abuse: A Handbook For Educators, Counselors, And Clinicians, Ed. H. Wesley Perkins. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
The most recent description of the NIU social norms campaign, with data from the baseline year (1988) through 1998.

A Social Norms Approach to Preventing Binge Drinking at Colleges and Universities (PDF)
by Michael Haines
This document, published in 1996, contains a complete description of the NIU Social Norms Campaign from its inception in 1989 through 1995. Contents include: a discussion of the historical and theoretical bases for this approach; a full description of the program methodology, with samples of the survey instrument and a discussion of media campaign costs; and bibliography.

Haines, M., A. F. Spear (1996). "Changing the perception of the norm: A strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students." Journal of American College Health, 45, 134-140.
Abstract. A reduction in college students' binge drinking associated with an intervention to change perceptions of drinking norms is described. The 5-year study was conducted at a public residential campus of 23,000 students. A traditional intervention proved unsuccessful, but a media campaign designed to change student perceptions of the amount of binge drinking showed an 18.5% drop in the number of students who perceived binge drinking as the norm (from 69.7% to 51.2%) and a corresponding reduction in self-reported binge drinking of 8.8% (from 43.0% to 34.2%). The apparent effectiveness of this prevention effort suggested that changing college students' perceptions of drinking norms may lower the proportion of students who engage in binge drinking.

**Portions of the information presented on this page were originally prepared by Michael Haines and Richard Rice and are printed here with their permission.