Social Marketing

Impact Score17.3
Students Impacted60%

What is social marketing?

Social marketing campaigns employ commonly used marketing techniques to promote messages intended to change behavior, whether that be seatbelt, tobacco, sunscreen, or alcohol use. Much like social norms marketing, social marketing uses a variety of vehicles to disseminate messages such as newspaper ads, posters, radio spots, and other materials. In campus alcohol prevention, social marketing campaigns often aim to increase student knowledge of the risks of alcohol use. In contrast to social norms marketing messages that promote normative behaviors and attitudes, social marketing messages may be quite varied in their content.

Social marketing campaigns may focus on changing alcohol-related behaviors by popularizing positive ideas and attitudes and encouraging changes in social values and individual behavior (Zimmerman, 1997). For example, at University of Florida, campaign messages focus on challenging positive alcohol expectancies by pointing to the common undesirable social outcomes of drinking with slogans such as “Sketchy Drunk Guys,” and “Don’t be That Girl.”

Social marketing messages may not only promote healthy alcohol-related behaviors, but also build support for or awareness of an alcohol policy or prevention initiative. For example, at Ohio University, a social marketing campaign called “Stop at the Buzz” not only educates students about the risks of high-risk drinking but also builds awareness of the university’s Medical Emergency Assistance program.

Marketing materials may also be used to advertise alcohol-free events. At North Dakota State University, the university promotes its late night alcohol-free venue, Club NDSU, with posters, t-shirts, web advertising, table tents and listserv emails (Vangsness & Oster-Aaland, 2009).

Research findings

Although the research on health-promoting marketing campaigns is not as extensive as that of social norms marketing, there is evidence that well-run campaigns can yield reductions in high-risk behaviors and negative consequences.

Social marketing campaigns may achieve optimal outcomes when launched in conjunction with other environmental strategies. For example, one study looked at the impact of launching a social marketing campaign in conjunction with increased enforcement to combat the problem of DUIs on a campus. The marketing campaign intended to build awareness of the ramped up enforcement and reveal the risks associated with drunk driving, such as being arrested. With both efforts in place, the university saw significant decreases in DUIs and increases in perceptions of DUI risk among students (Clapp et al., 2005).

Social marketing messages may also yield optimal results when launched in conjunction with norms-based messages. For example, at the University of Arizona, a social marketing campaign was launched to provide supporting education on lesser known and understood facts about alcohol and to advertise campus norms around alcohol-use. The multi-faceted campaign yielded significant declines in alcohol consumption, normative misperceptions, and negative consequences.

Issues and considerations

As with social norms marketing, a great deal of planning should go into the design and implementation of a social marketing campaign. Clear objectives must be laid out and messages should be designed with a specific target audience in mind, including their attitudes, values, and barriers for behavioral change. Focus groups will help to properly assess the target audience’s knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and general behaviors reflected in the campaign messages.

Once campaign messages are developed, more focus group testing should be carried out to ensure that messages are both comprehensible and credible to the audience. Students can also be involved in the design and/or promotion of the messages. This will help to ensure message credibility and legitimacy, and may also reduce costs associated with the development of the campaign.

Campaigns should be communicated through multiple media channels to strengthen campaign dosage and allow messages to be reinforced through several outlets.

Finally, it is important that campaign messages be supported and reinforced by the surrounding environment. For example, if a campaign intends to reduce student alcohol consumption, a campus must provide adequate alcohol-free options to students. Similarly, if a campaign educates students about the legal risks of drinking and driving, drunk driving laws must be adequately enforced in order to maintain the campaign’s credibility.

Clapp, J., Johnson, M., Voas, R., Lange, J., Shillington, A., & Russell, C. (2005, March). Reducing DUI among US college students: results of an environmental prevention trial. Addiction, 100(3), 327-334.

Social Marketing for Prevention (1996). Prevention Updates: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. Retrieved October 28, 2014 from

Vangsness, J. & Oster-Aaland, L (2009, January). Club NSDU: Assessing the Effectiveness of Late-Night Programming Through Direct and Indirect Measures. NASPA Strategies Conference 2009: Alcohol Abuse Prevention and Intervention.

Zimmerman, R. (1997). Social Marketing Strategies for Campus Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.