A university-wide social norms marketing campaign has reduced high-risk drinking and adverse outcomes of drinking, according to a new study from Michigan State University in the Journal of American College Health.
MSU's social norms campaign was created to educate MSU students about actual drinking behavior on campus. When misperceptions are corrected, behavior will change to be more consistent with the actual norm, said Dennis Martell, director of MSU Health Promotion.
“The social norms marketing approach assumes that most people conform to the perceived standards of the social groups to which they belong but, in actuality, what’s perceived is often not reality,” he said. “MSU has almost 20 years of evidence that shows that high-risk drinking and perceptions about drinking have changed on campus. The general misperception is that college-aged students party a lot and make questionable decisions, but the reality is that most students who choose to drink do so responsibly.”
Martell and his co-authors analyzed survey data collected every two years since 2000 and found that perceived drinking norms declined along with measures of actual drinking intensity and frequency. For example, the percentage of students who drank eight or more drinks declined from 27.8% in 2000 to 16.5% in 2014 – a 41% decline.
“The results are remarkable because students are continually bombarded with messages that encourage drinking,” said Larry Hembroff, director of research and evaluation for the National Social Norms Center at MSU and lead author. “Our campaign consists of materials posted around campus with facts that counter the myths of student drinking; the messages are simple, but they’ve worked.”
One surprising finding is how powerful the messages about using various protective behavior strategies while drinking have been at reducing negative alcohol-related incidents, Hembroff said. Examples of protective behavior strategies are using a designated driver, alternating drinks with water or a non-alcoholic beverage, eating food before or during drinking events, and watching out for friends.
The study found that the percentage of students who reported driving after drinking declined 58.5%. And driving after five or more drinks declined 83.3%.
In addition to helping change the culture of alcohol use at MSU, Martell leads the National Social Norms Center, or NSNC, which provides resources and research on social norms to 12 universities in the U.S. The NSNC was established at MSU in 2016 through a grant from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation.
“Our vision is to help universities standardize the process of the social norm application on their campuses,” Martell said. “We now have the research that shows increasing the use of these approaches not only can make a difference in alcohol-related behaviors that take place on campus but can address additional health concerns as well.
“MSU is recognized as a leader when it comes to changing the culture of alcohol use on campus,” Martell said. “The Anheuser-Busch Foundation’s support helps broaden the success of our programs and allows us to work with other universities.”
Adam Warrington, vice president of Better World at Anheuser-Busch, values the relationship with MSU.
“As the industry leader, Anheuser-Busch is committed to fostering a culture of responsible drinking behaviors and working with likeminded partners who share in our values,” he said. “We’re excited to continue our work with MSU and the NSNC as we work to ensure that every experience with one of our products is a positive one.”