Social Norms Marketing: Some Criticisms
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Alcohol education has always relied on teaching the effects of alcohol use and abuse on the human body, on teaching the negative consequences of alcohol abuse (car crashes, disease, etc.), and on other techniques that have all proven to be ineffective.
But a new approach has proven to be effective. It's based on the fact that virtually all students have greatly exaggerated perceptions about the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse among their peers. Therefore, they tend to drink or to drink more than they would like in order to "fit in." It was discovered that when students learn the real (lower) statistics, they feel less pressure to engage in such behaviors.
By conducting anonymous surveys to determine the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse and then publicizing or "marketing" the correct information, the social norms marketing approach has proven successful in reducing the extent of drinking and alcohol abuse. Not only is it effective, but it's inexpensive to implement and the positive results occur rather quickly.
But some people have a vested interest, usually emotional or financial, in doing things the old way, even when they don't work. And some of these people have become vocal critics of the new approach. Dr. William DeJong, Director of the federally-funded Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention has addressed some of the criticisms of social norms marketing. Dr. DeJong observes that:
No promising idea is without its critics, and social norms marketing is no exception. A major point of contention is that the alcohol industry has made a major investment in social norms marketing. Anheuser-Bush, for example, is now supporting a national media campaign by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), while also underwriting several campus-specific efforts and a new institute at Northern Illinois University run by Michael Haines.
The alcohol industry, according to some critics, seeks to downplay the seriousness of campus alcohol problems, and social norms marketing provides a vehicle for doing that. This concern was heightened by a front-page story on social norms marketing in The New York Times summarized in its headline: "New Tactic on College Drinking: Play It Down." In addition, some critics say, these campaigns appear to condone, and perhaps even to normalize, underage drinking on campus, which serves the alcohol industry's economic interests.
In fact, the Times headline is misleading. Social norms marketing is not about downplaying the problem, but portraying it accurately. If most students on campus abstain or use alcohol in moderation, doesn't the campus community need to know that? If putting the emphasis on this good news can help build social pressure to avoid heavy drinking, shouldn't that be done? Using social norms marketing doesn't mean sweeping the problem under the rug. The problem is severe enough without exaggerating it. Every major social problem on campus is made worse by alcohol abuse, and every college and university administrator knows it.
Do social marketing campaigns condone or normalize underage drinking? Consider a typical print advertisement for the University of Arizona's campaign, which had led to a sizeable reduction in heavy drinking according to student surveys. There is a photograph of smiling students, along with the following headline: "64% of U of A students have 4 or fewer drinks when they party." This message is a statement of fact about what most students are doing, not what they should do. Even so, does the advertisement imply that it's okay for all students, no matter what their age, to drink alcohol?
To understand what this advertisement actually communicates, we need to remember that college and university students of all ages already think that an even higher level of alcohol consumption is normative. Many University of Arizona students once believed that most students have 8, 9, 10, or more drinks when they socialize, not 4 or fewer, and this misperception incited heavy drinking. Hence, for underage students, the revelation of this message was not that other undergraduate students drink, but that they drink so much less than students thought, By implication, the message censures heavier drinking as a socially unacceptable choice.
Will some students who abstain or are light drinkers be led by social norms marketing to drink more than before? It's important to remember that these students, absent a social norms campaign, will also have an exaggerated view of how much drinking is going on around them. This perception is pervasive. Nonetheless, in the face of this apparent normative pressure, these students still choose to abstain or drink lightly. It's implausible to think they would increase their drinking after learning there are fewer heavy drinkers than they had once thought. 1
Making changes for the better often meets resistance. The introduction of automobiles encountered fear, resistance, and even sabotage. Buggy whip makers were especially vocal in their opposition to the horseless carriage. In the 1920's ice manufacturers convinced many people that electric refrigerators produced "unnatural" cold air that was inferior to that produced by ice.
People often defend what they think is in their own self-interest. So it is not surprising that, in spite of it's effectiveness and ease of implementation, some people still oppose social norms marketing.
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