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Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)

Misperceptions of high-risk alcohol use have been cut in half. In addition, the percentage of students with accurate perceptions of typical students drinking 0-4 drinks per sitting increased from 35% in 2002 to 52% in 2004. Further analysis showed that the change in perception occurred in all types of undergraduates: non-drinkers, light drinkers, and heavy drinkers. On the surface, it appears that drinking behaviors and negative consequences remained the same between 2002 and 2004. However, the demographic shift in the campus population typically would have increased drinking rates by about 8%. The VCU results suggest that the social norms project has nullified this effect.


Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is an urban, public institution with an enrollment of more than 28,000 students. VCU students are very diverse. VCU has a large art and theater school as well as a many well-known professional schools such as business, medicine and engineering. Recently, the university has been growing in size and transitioning from what was once primarily a commuter campus to one that is more residential. Research suggests that heavy-drinking rates are higher on residential campuses and lower at commuter campuses.

Focus group research at the beginning of the project indicated that VCU students tended to be skeptical. Therefore, in order to avoid backlash from the student body, a broad social norms campaign-called "VCU Students are Healthier than you Think"-was implemented, including alcohol use as just one of many health behaviors.

Project Funding Source

Funding for this project has been provided in the form of an unrestricted gift from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation.

Project Objective

Primary Objective: To reduce alcohol abuse and negative consequences related to alcohol abuse by promoting positive health norms.

Secondary Objective: Because of the nature of the undergraduate students at VCU, a single focus on the alcohol was avoided to lessen resistance to the message. Instead, a broader approach to health statistics was taken and secondary campaigns to address skepticism was created. Secondary campaign acknowledged student skepticism and used humor to increase the credibility of the campaign. All campaign media was created by VCU student designers under project staff supervision, and they have a trendy, artsy, and urban style.

Normative Messages

Initially, the VCU social norms marketing intervention consisted of three (3) print campaigns, each of which incorporated variations and used a variety of promotional items. The three campaigns were entitled:

1. VCU Students Are Healthier Than You Think
2. Skeptical Bubbles: "Most Students Have 0-4 Drinks When They Go Out."
3. Urban Legends

Because VCU students tend to have issues with authority, the decision was made to avoid over-focusing on alcohol as a health issue. Instead, the approach had a broader base and listed a variety of facts about health issues important to college students. The lead campaign was called "VCU students are healthier than you think." In this campaign, a series of 4 posters simply stated a variety of health statistics. Each ad contained the fact that 67% of VCU students have 0-4 drinks when they go out.

1. VCU Students Are Healthier Than You Think:
(Series of 4 posters… 0-4 statistic was on every poster)

    Messages included:
  • Most (67%) have 0-4 drinks when they go out.
  • Most (84%) wear seat belts.
  • Most (76% either don't drink or use designated drivers if they do.
  • Most (70%) don't smoke cigarettes.
  • Most (56%) have never even tried marijuana.
  • Most (68%) work in addition to going to school.
  • Most (73% either don't have credit cards or owe less than $500.
  • Most (69%) have had 0-1 sex partners in the past year.
  • Most women (72%) have had their annual Pap smear.

2. Skeptical Bubble Campaign:
(Series of 6 posters)

The goal of this campaign was to use humor and acknowledge student skepticism. The campaign gave the message, "Yes, we listened to what you said and we care about what you think." The campaign also provided more information for them to think about and subtly gave reasons why the campaign statistics are credible.

3. Urban Legends
(Series of 3)
For diversity, a table tent and post card campaign called "Urban Legends" gave the added (and humorous) perspective that "0-4 is no urban legend."

For examples of these and other media used in subsequent years, contact the Wellness Resource Center at

Marketing Methods Employed

Each semester there has been a primary norm print media campaign and a variety of secondary campaigns that have worked to address disbelief and provide texture to the messages. Posters and table tents have been the primary communications channel, supplemented with in-class activities and small-group norming exercises for first-year students. The secondary campaign has focused on protective strategies that students use to stay safe while drinking. This has also included a web site ( that has allowed project personnel to communicate with VCU students and faculty, while also helping them to freely share media and findings with other colleges, high schools, and community groups.

Of related interest is an article which details how VCU project staff have utilized the mall intercept to conduct ongoing marketing research:
Rice, R., and Hancock, L. "The Mall Intercept: A Social Norms Marketing Research Tool." The Report on Social Norms, 2005, 4(7):4-7.
Excerpt: "The mall intercept is an indispensable tool for conducting timely and effective process or monitoring research. Because it is relatively economical and can be easily adapted to investigate both ongoing and emergent questions, the mall intercept can generate a wealth of both qualitative and quantitative data about various aspects of project implementation. In addition, a wide variety of individuals can be trained to conduct intercepts, thus providing an important educational opportunity for peer educators, students in public and community health, marketing students, etc. In short, social norms projects have abundant reasons to use the mall intercept. By doing so, they can effectively bolster the comprehension, reach, and recall of their normative messages."

Further Information

For further information, see the VCU project web site:
Contents include: background information, an archive of project media, and a competition designed to elicit information about students' protective strategies.

Principal Investigator

Linda Hancock, FNP, PhD
Office of Health Promotion
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, VA 23284

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