9 December 2001 Social-Norms Marketing

New York Times


Whats the best way to stop college students from drinking? Invoke their inner lemmings.

Social-norms marketing is the science of persuading people to go along with the crowd. The technique works because people are allelomimetic that is, like cows and other herd animals, our behavior is influenced by the behavior of those around us. The technique stems from a watershed study conducted by H. Wesley Perkins, a professor of sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. Perkins found that students consistently overestimated how much alcohol their fellow students drank. In turn, these students drank more themselves, in an attempt to meet their misperceived standard of normalcy.

Northern Illinois University began the first social-norms marketing campaign on a college campus in 1990, using newspaper ads, posters and handouts to deliver the message that, contrary to popular belief, most students had fewer than five drinks when they partied. By 1999, incidents of heavy drinking (five or more drinks) by Northern Illinois University students was down 44 percent.

This year universities across the country have adopted social-norms marketing. Last summer, all 23 campuses in the California state university system initiated social-norms campaigns to curb drinking, as have dozens of universities elsewhere in the United States. Rather than telling students to Just say no! they are saying, in effect, Just be like everyone else.

Michael P. Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center in DeKalb, Ill., says social-norms marketing is moving beyond college campuses. Various state health departments are trying the technique out on issues like smoking, seat belts, safe sex and date rape. Haines says social-norms marketing works in part because, after years of wars on drugs, kids, teens and S.T.D.s, the time is right for messages that are affirming and positive.