Students view Dartmouth's campaign with skepticism

by Steve Kantor and Rachel Osterman | 5/15/02 5:00am

Carolyn Johnson '03 never bought into the campus-wide posters. Not only that, but she thought the signs that declare that the majority of Dartmouth students drink four or fewer drinks when they party could have potentially negative consequences.

So Johnson decided to take action. Enrolled in "Data Collection and Analysis in the Social Sciences," Johnson conducted her own survey to gauge the extent of student drinking, sending an email to the entire Class of 2003.

"I think that the College tries to hide the fact that there is a drinking culture and that students party pretty hard," Johnson explained.

What she found was perhaps less important than the very fact that Johnson doubted Dartmouth's statistics in the first place.

Three years and going, Dartmouth' social norms campaign has yet to strike a fully receptive chord with students. While some admire the administration's creative efforts to reduce the dangers of binge drinking, interviews with a cross-section of the student body reveal widespread skepticism that the College's numbers are accurate or that they could possibly succeed at changing student behavior.

Students express this mistrust with the social norms campaign in a variety of ways. In addition to the occasional statistics class survey, during Homecoming 2000 students sold T-shirts that, mocking the administration's figures, say, "Most Dartmouth students drink 5...6...7...8 or more drinks when they party." Each number is placed inside a beer pong ball, which are arranged in a tree formation.

Aware of such skepticism, those in charge of Dartmouth's social norms campaign say negative student opinion does not reflect the program's otherwise success.

"That in my mind is not an argument it's not working. That in my mind is the first step in getting people to internalize some truth about Dartmouth," director of Dartmouth's social norms campaign Laura Rubinstein said.

But students don't always agree.

"The administration would like to make people think that there is no widespread peer pressure to drink, but I don't know if that's true or not. It seems like it's more propaganda than anything else," Ben Steele '02 said.

Some students said the campaign's techniques cause them to question its legitimacy.

But not all students agree that the administration is playing tricks with the social norms marketing.

"You have to be critical of statistics, but at the same time I appreciate that the administration is doing something," Sarah Stokes '03 said.

Johnson, meanwhile, said that she came up with enough evidence in her own survey to question the fairness of the College's data.

While Johnson acknowledged that her class-wide mass email was not a controlled survey and, because it was conducted through BlitzMail, was not anonymous, she discovered based on responses that students drink more drinks on average when they party.

She said her study also shows that the proportion of students drinking four or less was significantly smaller than the College statistics.

Johnson said her own survey reinforced her questions about the College's social norms campaign, and that she's afraid the College doesn't realize how much students actually drink.

"Part of social expectations on this campus on a Friday or Saturday night is to go to a frat. Most people who go there are drunk, and it's hard to get drunk on four drinks," Johnson said.

Some of the students who distrust the accuracy of the social norms data say that they regardless don't mind the campaign, and even sometimes enjoy the free gifts that are given away.

"I think the Nalgene bottle thing was hysterical because everyone was drinking [alcohol] out of them," Ethan Mitnick '03 said, referring to the brand-name water bottles that bear the social norms campaign's message.

Referring to the same water bottles, Heather Harrington '03 said, "I myself filled it with Boone's yesterday. Wild island [flavor]."

Nonetheless, both Mitnick and Harrington had serious reflections on the campaign.

"Whether they're correct or not, they really do raise discussion," commented Mitnick.

Harrington added: "I think the problem is with the statistics. When you see one that says a quarter of the campus is drinking more than four drinks, it doesn't make you feel that badly about yourself."

Some students also voiced concern that they don't understand the campaign's messages.

"It's a big red pine cone. I don't know what that's supposed to mean," Joe Thistle '04 said.

Johnson added that she does not trust the College's measure of "partying," and that if drinking is as insignifant a problem as she thinks the official data raises the question: "Why is the College putting so much money into the campaign?"