College students consistently overestimate how much their peers are drinking, according to many research studies. In turn, that widespread misperception encourages some students to drink more to “keep up” with the majority of their peers. Would students drink less if they had more accurate information about the campus “norm?”
That question is driving a series of campaigns and studies underway at several college campus. In an innovative twist on “peer pressure,” social norms campaigns provide accurate information about healthy behaviors practiced by most people and encourage students to use that information to guide their behavior. EDC’s Social Norms Marketing Research Project is currently working with 32 campuses across the United States, says Laura Gomberg, the project’s director. “People’s perceptions of norms are often a good predictor of what they will say and do,” says Gomberg.
Funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the U.S. Department of Education, the five-year project (funded in October, 1999) will evaluate the effectiveness of one social norms campaign, Just the Facts (JTF), originally developed by the Golden Key International Honour Society. It will test the campaign’s effectiveness in two areas: correcting students’ misperceptions regarding the number of their peers who engage in high-risk drinking, and decreasing rates of high-risk drinking among college students. “It is the first national study to test the effectiveness of social norms marketing,” says Gomberg.
Results of social norms campaigns on individual campuses are promising, she notes. At Northern Illinois University, for example, heavy episodic alcohol consumption (also known as “binge drinking”) has dropped 44 percent over 10 years. Hobart/William Smith Colleges show a 40 percent drop over four years.
However, these studies have some limitations, Gomberg notes, and the EDC project has an opportunity to make an important contribution to the field. Most of the research that has shown these campaigns to be effective has simply included student surveys administered before and after the campaign. However, without the inclusion of control schools (schools that do not implement campaigns) and the collection of data about other programs, policies, and incidents on campus that might influence student drinking, it is impossible to conclude that decreases in drinking seen were due to the campaign, rather than other influences. To date, no one has done a traditional research project, comparing schools randomly assigned to receive a marketing campaign with control schools that don’t receive the program.
Many studies—including the National College Health Assessment, Core Alcohol and Drug Survey, and Monitoring the Future—have shown that most students do not drink heavily. They also show that students believe their peers are drinking almost twice as much as they actually are. In a similar finding, other studies show that most students say they support efforts to prevent alcohol abuse on campus, but they believe that their peers do not support such strategies. Annual surveys conducted by the EDC project confirm these findings. Its survey findings revealed that college students strongly support policies to restrict alcohol use on campuses. For example, 58.4 percent of students favored prohibiting kegs on campus, while only 26. 2 students believed there was support for it. The findings defy the common perception that students oppose such measures. Such findings are not simply interesting, Gomberg notes, “they give administrators the support they need to make substantive policy changes, which could make a real difference in reducing campus alcohol use.”
Students tend to form their impressions about campus drinking from the events that get the most attention, according to project staff. Tales about “wild parties” or a memorable event such as an accident or drinking-related incident, can turn into a firm belief about how “everyone” behaves, says Gomberg. Media portrayals of college drinking as a traditional “rite of passage” also contribute to this misperception.
Social marketing campaigns draw heavily on traditional marketing campaigns that sell a product. In this case, however, the product is a positive behavior that is promoted through a carefully developed message. The social norms marketing campaign “applies the principles of marketing to advance a social cause,” says Gomberg. “We try to convey information about positive behavior that is already embraced by the majority of the population.”
The project surveys students annually, works with college-based personnel to develop and introduce a customized media campaign on campus, and continually collects data on the school climate—including an analysis of other factors in the campus community that may also affect perceptions about drinking and drinking levels.
In line with the techniques of commercial marketing, campus-based personnel conduct market research at all stages of campaign development to ensure that all aspects of the campaign are appealing to and effective with the target audience. Key campaign components include strong messages that convey positive, majority information in “the language of the target audience” and a carefully developed marketing plan that considers the reach, credibility, and cost of campus media venues to maximize exposure to the campaign.
The campaign is presented through newspaper ads, flyers, e-mail and Web sites, television/radio advertisements, notices, giveaways. For example, posters announce messages that focus on the positive behaviors of a majority of students; for example, “75% of U students consume 0-4 drinks when they party” or “74% of U students have 0-4 drinks per week.” The messages are also incorporated into talks, orientations, and presentations and into give-aways and other prizes distributed to students. The project developed “Just the Facts: Implementation Guide” to help colleges develop and implement their campaigns and to guarantee standard implementation of the campaign across campuses.
Thus far, baseline survey data has been collected at all 32 campuses, contextual data collection is underway, and 16 campuses have begun to implement the JTF campaign.
Originally published on May 1, 2002