Examining the success of social norms campaigns

by Matt Lewis | 5/15/02 5:00am

Just about everyone in the business of student health agrees that social norms marketing was a radical idea when it first came on the scene a few years ago. Despite its widespread inception, health officials disagree on whether or not the advertising tactic has been effective at curbing harmful behavior.

Studies on the results of social norms campaigns indicate that they have enjoyed overall success on campuses across the country, in many cases causing excessive drinking to drop significantly.

But, as underscored by Dartmouth's campaign, the new behavior-based advertising technique sometimes has a limited effect, and many experts still question both the scientific validity of social norms marketing and its ability to penetrate tightly-knit social groups where heavy drinking is most prevalent.

One of the pioneers of social norms marketing, Michael Haines of the Northern Illinois University, has claimed to bring about a significant decline in drinking and drinking-related problems on campuses where he has worked.

Heavy drinking, according to Haines, dropped by 44 percent and alcohol abstinence rose during 10 years of exposure to social norms marketing at NIU, which was the first school to implement a social norms campaign after the theory was developed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

"Our hypothesis about student norms is that the students already have healthy, protective behaviors that it uses but sometimes they aren't noticed because the focus is on the aberrant few instead of the healthy many," Haines said.

But Eric Posner, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, sees flaws in the theory, particularly when a majority of students do not practice safe drinking and a college then releases information selectively, possibly adversely affecting student opinion.

"Some might think that if the university cares about this, then a good way of poking the eye of the university would be doing the opposite of what the university wants," Posner said.

Once the social norms campaign began, NIU experienced an immediate decrease in heavy drinking, Haines said. Complementing the overall drinking reduction, self-injuries have dropped 47 percent and fighting has dropped 75 percent at NIU over the last 10 years.

Questioning the validity of campus' statistics and the likelihood that the marketing works on groups who are most prone to binge drinking, not all college health professionals agree that the social norms method works.

Calvin Morill, a professor at the University of California- Irvine, does not believe social norms marketing is successful. He disputes the scientific validity of NIU's numbers, which were not collected in a controlled study but rather through a general survey.

Morrill, who studied the effect of information on the diets of Mexican-Americans, found that an interpersonal or network approach changes habits more than an advertising blitz.

"The social norm marketing is part of a long line of health campaign attempts that are looking for a kind of magic bullet to defeat some kind of social or health problem. These campaigns are largely unsuccessful over time -- but that doesn't mean that people shouldn't keep trying," Morrill said.

Haines found that using "scare tactics" to convince students unexpectedly provoked a rise in drinking in NIU.

"If all you see about your community are the death, accidents and arrests, you start assuming that death, accidents and arrests are the norm," Haines said.

Morrill also doubted that social norms marketing could deter dangerous drinking in social organizations where drinking is a mainstay of social life, such as a fraternity or rugby teams.

The University of Pennsylvania's alcohol study showed that binge-drinking rates at Penn vary greatly depending on the group being surveyed. Non-Greek, non-athlete students living on campus had a binge rate of 33 percent, but Greek affiliated athletes living off campus had a binge rate of 92 percent.

"Whatever the campaign strategy may be, it would sort of glance off that peer group like an asteroid glancing off the gravitational field of a planet," Morrill said.

Haines said that the campaign at NIU did breach these groups at rates similar to the entire community.

Dartmouth's social norms marketing campaign, recently revamped with new posters sporting more accurate data, has been in place for three years. In the first year of its implementation, Dartmouth saw a slip in heavy drinking -- defined as 10 or more drinks in one night -- from 18 to 13 percent of students overall.

John Pryor, the director of evaluation and research at Dartmouth, said that such an immediate impact is rare.

"You should expect that in the first few years you're not going to see results," he said. "You're really trying to get a feel for how to implement it on your particular campus."

After its initial success, however, the program suffered the successive loss of two program directors. Campaign intensity waned and there was little improvement in student drinking statistics.

The declining influence of the campaign, which is anchored by media advertisements, in part prompted new campaign posters that now say 76 percent of students drink moderately.

"We got a really clear message from students that they were bored with our designs, and that they stopped looking at them," interim director Laura Rubinstein said. "Unless you've seen them, they really can't be effective."

But Rubinstein remained optimistic for this spring's data collection and other demonstrations that the campaign has affected students' drinking habits.

"So really, our focus this year is to try and keep things going for next year," said Pryor.

The University of California's Morill also found that people with a higher degree of education are often more resistant to information on social behavior -- not necessarily because of higher intelligence, but because they have more information on which to base a decision.

To Rubinstein, a well-informed population means that students know the reality of the drinking environment and would consequently have no need for a social norms campaign.

Programs at other schools have failed because of low exposure to social norms messages and contradictory, conflicting messages, according to Pryor.

"Sometimes, you will a see that they've got a big graphic with a social norms message and a picture of a guy with a head in the toilet" which contradicts the social norms message that most people don't drink excessively, Pryor said.

Dartmouth's main objective is to cut down on the negative consequences of drinking, such as rape, property damage and even more mundane instances like an obnoxious intoxicated person disturbing someone's sleep.

Despite the mixed assessments, Haines is confident that his approach to curbing drinking makes sense. He summed up his theory:"Our hypothesis about student norms is that the students already have healthy, protective behaviors that they use but sometimes they aren't noticed because the focus is on the aberrant few instead of the healthy many," Haines said.