Social Norms Marketing

Impact Score27.8
Students Impacted60%

Social Norms Marketing

College students’ choices regarding alcohol-use are often strongly influenced by the degree to which they think their peers drink, which they often overestimate. To address this, prevention practitioners have employed social norms marketing (SNM) campaigns to correct students’ perceptions of the alcohol attitudes and behaviors of their peers to motivate them to reduce their drinking. This strategy has grown in popularity as a large-scale approach to change the overall drinking culture on a campus.

What is a social norm marketing campaign?

There are a variety of ways to create and implement SNM campaigns. As with social marketing campaigns, SNM campaigns use marketing approaches to disseminate messages through media such as newspaper ads, posters, radio spots, and other materials. The main difference between a social marketing and a social norms marketing campaign is that the messages of SNM relate specifically to the norms, attitudes and behaviors of the majority of students on a campus in order to promote a healthier atmosphere and culture. Messages are based on campus-specific data on a variety of drinking measures, such as drinking rates, the use of protective behaviors, or alcohol-related negative consequences. These data are often gathered through campus-wide surveys, such as the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) or the Core survey. The goal of the messages is to highlight that students drink less and more safely than students might perceive.

For example, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, campaign messages have used the slogans, “Most MU students drink 0-4 drinks per week” and “Most MU students don’t drink and drive” (“University of Missouri-Columbia,” n.d.). Similarly, the University of Arizona has used the slogan, “64% of UA students have 4 or fewer drinks when they party” (“University of Arizona,” n.d.). The idea is that the messages promoted represent 1) generally healthy or safe practices and 2) represent the behavior of the majority of students.

SNM messages are promoted through an assortment of media channels. Some campuses may rely solely on print materials, such as posters, table tents, flyers, and advertisements in campus newspapers, whereas other campuses might also use electronic media, such as screen savers, emails or a campus website to display messages. The aim is to utilize as many media channels as possible in order to reinforce healthy norms.

Messages are also placed strategically in order to maximize exposure. Usually campaign messages are displayed in high-traffic areas, such as residence halls, cafeterias, and student unions. Campuses can also display posters or banner advertising on campus transportation vehicles. For example, Florida State University displays their posters in their Star Metro buses on campus (“The Real Project,” 2008) and the University of Massachusetts has SNM banner advertising on community bus routes that service the campus area.

A campus might also create a targeted SNM campaign to reach certain groups of students. High-risk groups, such as Greek Life members, first-year students, and student athletes are often given targeted messages based on group-specific normative data. The goal of these targeted campaigns is to make the messages relevant to the group, so that students might better relate to the messages. For example, campaign messages based on chapter-specific data might be placed on posters in a fraternity or sorority house. Similarly, data specific to first-year students might be displayed in first-year residence halls.

Research findings

Up until recently, the research on SNM has been somewhat mixed. While the first campuses to launch campaigns did so with dramatic success, many case studies and non-randomized experiments had documented SNM failures. For example, a multi-faceted SNM campaign at the University of Virginia was found to counteract the campus’ drinking culture and reduce alcohol-related problems (Turner et al., 2008). However, Wechsler et al. (2003) published a national evaluation of SNM that found no effects of SNM campaigns. With its design flaws and limitations, this study raised a great deal of controversy, however the field has been divided for some time as to the efficacy of this approach.

Much of the mixed evidence has been attributed to the lack of rigorous research in the field of SNM, and also to the uneven quality of the campaigns themselves. In order to fill this void, the Social Norms Marketing Research Project (SNMRP) was launched in 2000, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The study employed two cohorts of matched pairs of 32 institutions randomized to either receive a treatment SNM condition or to serve as a control to test whether SNM campaigns can reduce student drinking levels. The first cohort of campuses demonstrated that SNM campaigns had an impact on drinking, (Dejong et al., 2006), whereas the second cohort did not replicate these findings (Dejong et al., 2009). This unexpected result was investigated further, and it was found that the impact of the campaigns was mediated by the high alcohol outlet density of many of the treatment campuses in that cohort (Scribner et al., in review). With the increased presence of alcohol marketing and advertising in these communities, these messages competed with the SNM messaging and counteracted the goals of the SNM campaigns. This analysis presents interesting contextual information about the efficacy of social norms marketing campaigns. For instance, given the minimal resources (approximately $2000) devoted to the campaigns in this study, it indicates that promotion of healthy norms needs to achieve a certain level of saturation and intensity in order to counteract the messages of alcohol outlets. A campus in a high alcohol outlet setting may need to devote more resources to achieve a successful campaign than campuses without the promotions and advertising of the alcohol industry.

Campuses with a high alcohol outlet density may also benefit from addressing the alcohol environment prior to launching a social norms marketing campaign through environmental management strategies that reduce the access to and availability of alcohol, increase enforcement of alcohol policies, limit alcohol advertising, and enforce responsible beverage server training to reinforce healthy norms of the student body and to present a more uniform message that alcohol misuse is not tolerated.

Issues and considerations

It is important that an institution assess whether students are indeed misperceiving peer drinking behaviors prior to considering adoption of a campaign. If no misperceptions exist, the purpose of a SNM campaign is moot. Additionally, if the behaviors of the majority of students are not healthy, then finding messages to promote a healthy norm will be difficult. Instead, a campus may consider a social marketing campaign to promote messages that may compel students to reconsider their drinking behaviors. If a campus is characterized as having a high drinking culture (e.g. has high baseline drinking rates, a high alcohol outlet density, etc.) then a SNM may not be the best immediate approach to reducing drinking. Such a campus might want to address the drinking environment through environmental management strategies prior to creating a campaign.

Much of the evidence supporting the effectiveness of SNM campaigns supports the idea that they be implemented within the context of a broad, environmental approach that addresses other issues and problems on campus. This allows the normative messages of a SNM campaign to be reinforced by the campus and surrounding community. The enforcement of alcohol policies must be consistent both on-and off-campus, and institutions should be utilizing a number of strategies to support the normative environment, such as alcohol-free activities.

As with all social marketing campaigns, it is recommended that campaign materials and messages be focus-group tested with students in order to ensure messages are both comprehensible and credible to the audience. It is even suggested that students be involved in the design and/or promotion of the messages. Involving students in such a manner may also reduce costs associated with the development of the campaign.

Finally, it is recommended that SNM campaigns be communicated through multiple media channels. This will strengthen the campaign and allow messages to be reinforced to students through several outlets.

Questions to Contemplate When Considering a Social Norms Marketing Campaign:

Before deciding to adopt a social norms marketing campaign, it is important to ask yourself a series of questions that will help determine from the outset whether employing such a campaign is right for you and your campus.

1. Is there a healthy behavior among the majority of students on your campus?

Ideally, the majority behavior promoted in your social norms messages should not be that of too small or too large a proportion of students. If the percentage of students demonstrated in the messages is too small a majority (e.g., 55%), some students may consider the behavior displayed as “50/50,” and therefore may not find this message compelling enough for them to comply with the healthy norm. On the other hand, if the proportion of students demonstrated in the messages is too large, some students may be more skeptical of the message and dismiss it because they don’t find it credible.

If you don’t have a healthy norm in alcohol use among your students, consider using a campaign to promote messages about their use of protective behaviors, such as not drunk driving, or pacing their drinks when they consume.

Alternatively, if you don’t have healthy normative behaviors among your students to promote, consider adopting a social marketing campaign to promote attitudes among students that convey their distaste for overly drunk friends. For instance, University of Florida has used this approach in creating their “Less is More” campaign which has been successful in presenting messages like “Don’t be That Girl” and “Sketchy Drunk Guys.

2. Does a misperception exist among students regarding the norms of students on campus?

If not, the purpose of a campaign to address misperceptions is moot.

3. Are you situated in a high alcohol outlet density campus environment?

If so, consider the messages promoted by these outlets as running counter to those of your campaign and therefore presenting a challenge to your efforts.

Prior to adopting a SNM campaign, you may want to consider adopting an environmental approach to reduce the number of alcohol outlets in your community, the amount or the kinds of messages they promote through their advertising, or the marketing and promotional vehicles they employ to attract students such as low-priced drink specials or happy hours. These efforts will help to reduce messages that run counter to those of a social norms marketing campaign and can lay the groundwork for a more successful campaign to take root.

4. What kinds of resources do you have to devote to the campaign?

If your resources are minimal, then you may be challenged by the presence of a large number of alcohol outlets in your community and the messages that they promote. However, there are cost-effective means of promoting normative messages, for instance, via electronic media, so take heart. You may still be able to run an effective campaign while using such cost-effective measures.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S.K., Towvim, L.G., Murphy, M.J., Doerr, E.E., Simonsen, N.R., Mason, K.E., and Scribner, R.A. (2006). A Multisite Randomized Trial of Social Norms Marketing Campaigns to Reduce College Student Drinking. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67(6), 868-879.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S.K., Towvim, L.G., Murphy, M.J., Doerr, E.E., Simonsen, N.R., Mason, K.E., and Scribner, R.A. (2009). A Multi-Site Randomized Trial of Social Norms Marketing Campaigns to Reduce College Student Drinking: A Replication Failure. Journal of Substance Abuse, 30 (2), 127-140.

Scribner, R.A., Theall, K.P., Mason, K.E., and Simonsen, N.R., Schneider, S.K., Towvim, L.G., and DeJong, W. (in review). Alcohol Prevention on College Campuses: The Moderating Effect of the Alcohol Environment on the Effectiveness of Social Norms Marketing Campaigns.

The Real Project (2008). Retrieved June 17, 2009 from

Turner, J., Perkins, H. W. and Bauerle, J. (2008). Declining Negative Consequences Related to Alcohol Misuse Among Students Exposed to a Social Norms Marketing Intervention on a College Campus. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 85-93.

University of Arizona. The National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia. Retrieved January 14, 2009 from

University of Missouri-Columbia. The National Social Norms Institute at the University of Virginia. Retrieved January 14, 2009 from

Wechsler, H., Nelson, T., Lee, J., Seibring, M., Lewis, C., & Keeling, R. (2003). Perception and Reality: A National Evaluation of Social Norms Marketing Interventions to Reduce College Students’ Heavy Alcohol Use. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64(4), 484-494.