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Social Norms Campaign

Background

College and university administrators have consistently cited high-risk drinking as the number-one substance abuse problem on campus. High-risk drinking is a contributing factor in poor academic performance, property damage, physical violence, unintentional injury, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections.

Although high-risk drinking and its related negative consequences are a serious problem at institutions of higher education and a key concern of school administrators, few studies have examined the effectiveness of environmentally-based prevention strategies. The persistence of this problem, coupled with a lack of scientifically validated strategies, points to the need for rigorous research to evaluate new programs and policies, particularly those that are designed to reshape the physical, social, legal, and economic environments in which students make decisions about their alcohol use.

Several colleges and universities have implemented social norms marketing campaigns with promising results, some of which have seen 20 percent reductions in high-risk drinking after just two years of campaign implementation.

How Social Norms Marketing Works: The Theory Behind the Practice

Researchers have established that college students tend to grossly overestimate the number of their peers who engage in high-risk alcohol consumption. This misperception is believed to influence students to drink more heavily by changing their perceptions of normative expectations (social norms) around drinking. In other words, students may feel pressured to drink because they believe that "everyone else is doing it."

The basic idea behind a social norms marketing campaign is to turn this dynamic around by using campus-based media to inform students about the true levels of alcohol consumption among their peers. The actual levels of alcohol consumption among college students are much lower than students perceive them to be. Having accurate information about college alcohol use is hypothesized to lead to changes in perceptions of drinking norms on campus and, in turn, may lead to fewer students engaging in high-risk drinking.

Campus media campaigns (such as newspaper ads, posters, flyers, electronic bulletin boards, banners, carabineers, and radio ads) will feature positive statistics about Dartmouth students which illustrate that most students make low-risk choices with respect to alcohol consumption. A typical social norms message would be "74% of Dartmouth drinkers have 0-4 drinks on the average Friday night."

Dartmouth uses actual student-generated data collected by the Office of Evaluation and Research. Students are invited to review the data and assist in creating new messages. Those messages, in turn, are tested by Dartmouth students for believability and interpretation. Finally, various marketing strategies are employed to disseminate the social norms messages.

Benefits of the Campaign

A demonstrated reduction in alcohol consumption may, over time, improve levels of academic performance and reduce instances of physical violence, unintentional injury, littering, vandalism, and exposure to sexually transmitted infections. By promoting student health and safety in this way, we hope to see an improved atmosphere and learning environment on campus in general.

The campaign will have a campus-wide impact. Involving a variety of departments, offices, and student groups can strengthen connections and relationships on our campus. This is an excellent opportunity for students, faculty, staff, and administrators to work together to promote healthy and safe behavior among students and to attempt to effect positive changes in our campus community.

Students engaged in this ongoing project will have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, work creatively, benefit from teamwork experience, and make positive contributions to campus life.

What can I do to Help?

  • Learn about the social norms approach to alcohol and other drug prevention.
  • Engage others in conversations about marketing strategies and messages.
  • Do not enable others to reinforce their misperceptions!
  • Present students with reasonable alternatives to drinking on campus.
  • Be a leader and get involved!

Resources

Contact Us

Dartmouth College Health Service
Health Promotion
7 Rope Ferry Road #6143
Hanover, NH  03755
Phone:  (603) 646-9474    FAX:  (603) 646-9450

Last Updated: 6/1/10