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Social Norms and Social Marketing

One of the most widely cited approaches for changing the normative environment on a college campus is social norms marketing. This prevention approach employs social marketing techniques, which are methods to disseminate messages for public benefit similar to the manner in which messages are promoted for commercial purposes. Social marketing can take the form of broadcast public service announcements (PSAs), flyers, posters, billboards, Web sites, and a range of other communications vehicles to promote healthy or beneficial messages (e.g., seat belt use, smoking cessation, or nutrition promotion).

Social norms marketing is grounded in the theory that college students commonly misperceive the extent to which their peers accept and engage in a behavior, set of beliefs, or attitudes. This approach was initially developed to address the issue of student alcohol use. Researchers discovered students widely misperceive the extent to which their peers drink alcohol ñ that is, they believe their peers drink much more than is the case. This theory was developed from information gathered through campus-wide surveys asking how much respondents drank and how much they believed their fellow students drank. Once students were presented with accurate statistics on student alcohol use on their campus through flyers, posters, and other mechanisms, over time student drinking rates declined. The concept that explains this reduction in drinking is that, as students believe the rate of drinking is above that of their own use, they drink more to approximate the level they believe their peers to engage in. Once they are presented with more accurate information about the alcohol norms on their campus, they will drink at a lower level, as the perceived peer pressure to drink is alleviated.

Social norms theory and its applications have received a great deal of attention over the past several years, with different researchers claiming it to have varying degrees of effectiveness. Since its inception to prevent high-risk drinking on campus, prevention practitioners have applied social norms marketing to address other health behaviors and attitudes in various settings. While the rates of effectiveness have varied from one campus environment to another, the variables regarding message saturation, the manner in which campaigns are implemented, and other factors in the campus environment that may effect alcohol use are rarely controlled. The Social Norms Marketing Research Project (SNMRP) is a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism-funded study to examine the effectiveness of the approach in over 30 campuses, controlling for these kinds of variables. As this five-year research study draws to a close, many prevention practitioners and researchers will be interested to see how this promising approach holds up under scrutiny.

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