Theory & Research

Social norms campaigns are one of the most researched substance abuse prevention strategies.  From a theoretical perspective, these campaigns are grounded in the field of public health’s “theory of planned behavior,” which lists subjective norms as an influence on individual and group behavior.   Searches of online library databases will yield plenty of articles citing the successes of such campaigns, as well as failures and lessons learned.  A sampling of research articles and their abstracts follows:

DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, S. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonson, N. R., Mason, K. E., & Scribner, R. A. (2006).  A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking.  Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67 (6), 868-879.

Abstract: Objective: An 18-site randomized trial was conducted to determine the effectiveness of social norms marketing (SNM) campaigns in reducing college student drinking. The SNM campaigns are intended to correct misperceptions of subjective drinking norms and thereby drive down alcohol consumption. Method: Institutions of higher education were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups. At the treatment group institutions, SNM campaigns delivered school-specific, data-driven messages through a mix of campus media venues. Cross-sectional student surveys were conducted by mail at baseline (n 2,771) and at posttest 3 years later (n 2,939). Hierarchical linear modeling was applied to examine multiple drinking outcomes, taking intraclass correlation into account. Results: Controlling for other predictors, having an SNM campaign was significantly associated with lower perceptions of student drinking levels and lower alcohol consumption, as measured by a composite drinking scale, recent maximum consumption, blood alcohol concentration for recent maximum consumption, drinks consumed when partying, and drinks consumed per week. A moderate mediating effect of normative perceptions on student drinking was demonstrated by an attenuation of the Experimental Group × Time interaction, ranging from 16.4% to 39.5% across measures. Additional models that took into account the intensity of SNM campaign activity at the treatment institutions suggested that there was a dose-response relationship. Conclusions: This study is the most rigorous evaluation of SNM campaigns conducted to date. Analysis revealed that students attending institutions that implemented an SNM campaign had a lower relative risk of alcohol consumption than students attending control group institutions.

Perkins, H. W., &  Craig, D. W. (2006). A successful social norms campaign to reduce alcohol misuse among college student-athletes. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67 (6), 880-889.

Abstract: Objective: This study examines the impact of a social norms intervention to reduce alcohol misuse among student-athletes. The intervention was designed to reduce harmful misperceptions of peer norms and, in turn, reduce personal risk. Method: A comprehensive set of interventions communicating accurate local norms regarding alcohol use targeted student-athletes at an undergraduate college. An anonymous survey of all student-athletes was conducted annually for 3 years (2001: n 414, 86% response; 2002: n 373, 85% response; and 2003: n 353, 79% response). A pre/post comparison of student-athletes was conducted separately for new and ongoing athletes at each time point to isolate any general time period effects from intervention effects. A cross-sectional analysis of student-athletes with varying degrees of program exposure was also performed. Results: The intervention substantially reduced misperceptions of frequent alcohol consumption and high-quantity social drinking as the norm among student-athlete peers. During this same time period, frequent personal consumption, high-quantity consumption, high estimated peak blood alcohol concentrations during social drinking, and negative consequences all declined by 30% or more among ongoing student-athletes after program exposure. In contrast, no significant differences across time were seen for new student-athletes each year with low program exposure. Among student-athletes with the highest level of program exposure, indications of personal misuse were at least 50% less likely on each measure when compared with student-athletes with the lowest level of program exposure. Conclusions: This social norms intervention was highly effective in reducing alcohol misuse in this high-risk collegiate subpopulation by intensively delivering data-based messages about actual peer norms through multiple communication venues.