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"Social norms" marketing tactics fail to reduce college drinking rates.

Colleges and universities that use social norms marketing techniques to curb alcohol consumption by students are no more likely to record decreases in binge drinking and other unhealthy drinking behaviors than other schools, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Harvard researchers found that at some colleges that use social norms marketing, the number of students who consumed alcohol in the previous month increased, as did the number of students who drank 20 or more drinks in the past month. No such increases were found in schools that do not use social norms approaches.

Social norms marketing promotes healthy behaviors about alcohol consumption and has become increasingly popular in recent years with college administrators and health educators. The approach assumes that most students think their classmates drink more than they actually do, a misperception that leads students to drink more in order to "fit in." Social norms marketing techniques attempt to correct this misperception and thereby encourage students to drink less.

Examples of social norms messages are "Most students at (school name) have five or fewer drinks when they party" or "Most students at (school name) drink moderately when they party." Posters, flyers, and T-shirts are commonly used to convey these messages.

The study analyzed students' drinking behavior at 37 colleges that use social norms marketing and 61 that do not. The comparison evaluated seven standard measures: drinking in the previous year; drinking in the previous month; heavy episodic or binge drinking; drinking 20 or more drinks in the previous month; drinking 10 or more times in the previous month; getting drunk at least three times in the previous month; and typically consuming five or more drinks at a time.

On each of the seven measures, researchers found no improvement that could be attributed to adopting a social norms marketing program. This was true for all schools with social norms programs, including schools where students had the highest exposure to social norms messages and schools where the program had been in effect for two years or more.

"One problem with [the social norms] approach is that many students do not care about what the 'typical' student does," said Henry Wechsler, principal investigator of the study. "Especially in large schools with diverse student bodies, students are more likely to be influenced by their immediate circle of friends than by the drinking habits of a mythical average student who is alluded to in social norms programs."

The full study can be found at
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Publication:The Journal of Employee Assistance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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