Brandee Tucker, a junior at Cal Poly Pomona, was touched when the school sent her a card for her 21st birthday in April. She was puzzled, though, as she unfolded it and found some odd statistics. According to the administration, 46% of her classmates did not drink any alcohol at all when they celebrated their 21st birthdays; of those who did, 70% of the men drank fewer than five drinks and 71% of the women drank fewer than four.
"I thought it was the weirdest thing. You think when you're 21, you'll go party," said the journalism major, who went on to celebrate her birthday in Las Vegas clubs with friends. She stuck by her usual four-drink limit and said she probably would have anyway. Still, she said, "the card made you think about it."
Targeted by the Cal Poly Student Health Services, Tucker was one of hundreds of thousands of college students across the country subjected to the latest thinking about how to reduce risky behavior among young people: Show them it's not popular.
The practice, called "social norms marketing," has grown rapidly in the last three years, along with the realization that scolding, scaring, educating and even passing laws can't stop young people from harming themselves and others. In sharp contrast to generations of adults who argued, "If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?" the new theory encourages the young to conform, since most of their peers aren't up to much anyway.
"The reality is, we're herd animals and we behave in accordance with social norms and the expectations of others," said H. Wesley Perkins, professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., who is known as the father of social norms marketing. "We're taking conformity behavior and using it in a positive way."
Curiously, there has been almost no resistance to the idea in colleges and universities, traditional bastions of individualism. "This kind of strategy would never, ever have been tried 30 years ago," said Calvin Morrill, professor of sociology, psychology and law at the University of Arizona in Tucson, which has conducted one of the largest experiments to date. "To try and market social norms, particularly if it were seen to be from an administrative source. . . . It would have been laughable."
It is acceptable now, Morrill said, because the nation is undergoing a pronounced uptick in conformity, and the aims of social norms marketing--reducing binge drinking, smoking, poor diet, unsafe sex, sexual assault and even social bias--appear to justify the means.
Social norms marketing grew from Perkins' 1986 report that students consistently overestimated the amount other students drank, and that misperception predicted how much they themselves drank. A study last year by the Newton, Mass.-based Education Development Center confirmed that 69% of students in 18 schools misperceived campus drinking rates: Although students reported drinking 4.7 drinks per week, they perceived that their peers consumed almost twice as much.
People everywhere tend to overestimate unhealthy behavior in others, in some cases because they like to feel superior or because they need to justify their own extreme behavior, psychologists said. Also, extreme behavior tends to be remembered more often; and news events often leave disproportionate impressions of problem behavior, Perkins said. As a result, most people are "carriers" of misperceptions, he said.
To correct those misperceptions, colleges and universities began to survey students about their attitudes and actions. The survey results were then disseminated through campus-based media campaigns modeled on commercial marketing techniques: focus groups, ads, fliers and posters. Some campuses have also used small group interventions.
A Concept Taken From Industry
Marketers out to sell healthy behavior take their cues from industry, said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University at DeKalb, Ill. "The industry rarely uses scare tactics to get people to buy beer or blue jeans. They make it normal," he said.
A typical ad from the University of Arizona shows laughing students with the message: "Most U of A (69%) students have 4 or fewer drinks when they party." The small print defines "a drink" and lists the source of the survey data. A card in the Cal Poly registration packet tells students that 77% of their peers had five or fewer drinks the last time they partied.
In addition to posters and ads, some colleges pay students who can recite the survey statistics or have a social norms poster in their dorm room. At Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the information appears as screensavers or on interactive sites on campus computing networks.
At least 10 schools using social norms marketing have reported improvements in student behavior. Northern Illinois University claims to have reduced heavy drinking (defined as more than five drinks at a party) by 44% in the last 10 years with its campaign that featured the now-standard poster of smiling students with the message that "Most men drink 0-5 drinks when they party. Most women drink 0-3 drinks when they party." Alcohol-related injuries and fighting fell as much as 76%. Perceptions of heavy drinking dropped from 57% to 33%.
University of Arizona student health officials said the school was dropped from the Princeton Review's annual list of the nation's top 10 party schools after a similar campaign aimed at faculty, administrators and parents as well as students. Reported heavy drinking was reduced 29% in the last four years, officials said.
A more definitive five-year, $4-million study of a social norms marketing campaign at 32 colleges is being conducted by the EDC in conjunction with the Golden Key International Honour Society.
Meanwhile, Haines said about a fifth of all the nation's colleges and universities have begun experimenting with social norms campaigns in varying degrees. "Universities are under more pressure than ever before to do something about the alcohol issue," he said.
A committee at the California State University system, formed in December following the alcohol poisoning death of a fraternity pledge at Cal State Chico, will soon recommend a social norms marketing approach, said committee chairman John Welty, president of Cal State Fresno. The state system is also co-sponsoring the fourth annual social norms conference in July in Anaheim.
"As one who's struggled with this issue for 30 years now, it does make a great deal of sense," Welty said. "It removes some of the stereotypes that often exist on campuses that all college students do is drink. That certainly is not accurate."
Nevertheless, the "Animal House" perception of hard-drinking student life is so pervasive that many students, such as Brandee Tucker, initially reject the survey statistics. Tucker said many students found the statistics on the number of drinks on her birthday card to be unbelievably low.
Alan Berkowitz, a New York psychologist, said that to keep students from rejecting the survey findings, the schools need to find ways to underline their believability.
In Arizona, for instance, marketers learned they needed to picture actual students in a familiar campus location on their ads, rather than professional models in a studio.
Fears of Minimizing a Serious Problem
Naturally, skeptics have a few questions. How accurate are those surveys? Do the messages encourage nondrinkers and moderate drinkers to keep up with the norm? Isn't this just another educational fad?
Henry Wechsler, principal investigator of Harvard's College Alcohol Study, an ongoing survey of 15,000 students nationwide, said he worries that such attempts oversimplify a complex problem. "There is a serious drinking problem on American college campuses. From a public health standpoint, I would not like to minimize a serious problem by saying most people don't do it."
University of Chicago Law School professor Eric A. Posner, author of "Law and Social Norms," is also skeptical whether social norms marketing would work with small, heavy-drinking groups like fraternities or rugby clubs. "It's true the vast majority don't binge drink, but the ones who do because of social pressure are in a fraternity where everybody does and they know it. They think, 'That's what makes us special compared to the rest of the boring student body.' Learning about what the rest are doing won't matter."
Creative experiments with social norms are encouraging, Posner said, but the phenomenon is still so poorly understood that "one wonders how effective these things are likely to be."
Arizona's Morrill believes media campaigns alone are doomed to fail partly because they can't prove that they made a difference over and above what was happening in society anyway. In a four-year study of a campaign to promote healthier diets in low-income Latino men, Morrill said those who received a media-only social norms campaign ate half a serving more of fruits and vegetables every day, following trends in the general population. Those who also heard peer and health educators ate a serving and a half more. "That's a huge difference," he said.
What's more, standards like "five or fewer" or "six or fewer" don't always strike everyone as low-risk drinking. In that case, schools such as the University of Arizona advise shifting to messages from consumption rates to alcohol-related behavior: "Most U of A students are safe when they drink: 83% use a designated driver, 67% keep track of the number of drinks they have, 71% do not drive under the influence."
Proponents of social norms theory believe it holds special promise for reaching passive bystanders who allow injustices because they mistakenly think they're in the minority.
A campaign to teach people that the majority do not tolerate emotional, physical or sexual violence, for instance, has the potential to "unleash the power of the good in people that remains latent because they think they're the only ones who think that way," said Patricia Fabiano, program director of the Prevention and Wellness Services at Western Washington University.
In addition to an alcohol awareness program, the school has also begun a violence awareness program with posters such as: "It's a respect thing. It's a love thing. It's a communications thing. Make it your thing. Most Western students believe they can do something about relationship violence."
At James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., posters were distributed with messages such as "A man respects a woman: Nine out of 10 JMU men stop the first time their date says no to sexual activity." The campaign significantly increased the number of men who indicated they stop when a date says no and a decrease among those who agreed that "when I want to touch someone sexually, I try and see how they react."
A "Say Something" campaign at the University of Iowa produced posters saying "67% of UI students have had their studying or sleep interrupted by a loud, obnoxious, drunken student. Say something!" The program was not formally evaluated, but some students said that until then they hadn't realized they had a right to speak up.
As the campaigns grow, they are also spreading to target the attitudes of older adults. In one case, the method was used to help parents enforce curfews. "Parents think they're the only ones who impose a curfew. Most do," Perkins said.
The ways social norms can be used to create a better campus environment are almost limitless, said Drew Hunter, executive director of the Denver-based BACCHUS and GAMMA Peer Education Network, which is working with 11 campuses to evaluate social norm marketing in areas besides alcohol abuse.
"What we need to understand is, more than anything else, students want to be perceived as normal."