Social Norms Campaign


Based on the assumption that inaccurate normative beliefs such as “everybody drinks” lead to problem drinking behaviors among underage youth, social norms campaigns use scientific evidence (e.g., consumption data) to promote accurate, healthy norms about alcohol use.


To correct misperceptions regarding underage alcohol use by modeling and promoting healthy protective behaviors that are the actual norm

Typical Elements

  • Research to understand the prevention context that includes, for example (Berkowitz, 2005; Haines, Perkins, Rice, & Barker, 2005):
    • Defining the problem (e.g., binge drinking) to be addressed.
    • Identifying the audience (e.g., college students).
    • Identifying key stakeholders (i.e., those who can influence and/or care about program outcomes).
    • Determining whether stakeholders are ready and willing to implement a social norms intervention, and address any questions or concerns.
  • Quantitative data on the audience’s personal behaviors and attitudes, perceptions of peers’ typical behaviors and attitudes, and exposure to social norm messages (Berkowitz, 2005; Haines et al, 2005). Data also can include protective behaviors, such as staying with friends who have been drinking so they are not alone with strangers and asking friends to slow down when they are perceived to be drinking excessively (see Turner, Perkins, & Bauerle, 2008, p. 86).
  • A social norms strategy that uses formative research data to (Haines et al, 2005):
    • Determine which communication channels will be used and viewed as credible/trustworthy by the intended audience (e.g., college students) or subgroups of the intended audience (e.g., college athletes) (see also Berkowitz, 2005). Popular channels for social norms campaigns targeting college youth have included school newspaper advertisements, Web postings, e-mail blasts, presentations, and weekly or monthly display advertisements placed in frequented locations (Glider, Midyett, Mills-Novoa, Johannessen, & Collins, 2001; Haines & Spear, 1996; Scribner et al, 2011; Turner et al, 2008).
    • Develop social norms messages for the intended audience, or specific sub-groups, that are compelling and culturally appropriate. Effective messages tend to be simple, honest, positive, and empowering (see also Haines, 1996); tell a story; and include eye-catching details.   
    • Elicit audience feedback (e.g., using focus groups and pilot tests) to help shape messages and select delivery methods (see also Berkowitz, 2005; Scribner et al., 2011).
  • Project staff that is trained and supported regarding the implementation of social norms campaigns (Berkowitz, 2005).
  • A clear implementation plan for the social norms campaign (Haines et al, 2005) that includes these elements:
    • Social norms messages to individuals based on data from their immediate reference groups (e.g., fraternities, sororities, college athletes; see also LaBrie, Hummer, Neighbors, & Pedersen, 2008).
    • Messages delivered consistently and frequently.
    • Documentation and tracking of various media placements.
    • Audience input to determine how well messages are reaching them. (See A Guide to Marketing Social Norms for Health Promotion in Schools and Communities  for an example of a survey that can be used to collect this information.)
    • Publicity for the social norms intervention such as a press release to help launch the campaign and provide press contacts with ongoing updates about related activities.


Primarily college-attending youth


  • College student exposure to social norms campaigns about student drinking has been linked to increases in positive perception of alcohol-free activities (Glider et al., 2001) and reductions in:
    • Perceptions of typical student drinking frequency and quantity (Mattern & Neighbors, 2004; Perkins & Craig, 2006)
    • Drinking among non-abstaining students (Mattern & Neighbors, 2004)
    • Misperceptions of alcohol consumption among athletes (Perkins & Craig, 2006)
    • Frequency and quantity of personal alcohol consumptions among athletes (Perkins & Craig, 2006)
    • Perceptions that binge drinking is the norm (Haines & Spear, 1996; Johannessen & Glider, 2003)
    • Self-reported binge drinking (Glider et al., 2001; Haines & Spear, 1996; Johannessen & Glider, 2003)
    • Students having a blood alcohol content greater than .08 the last time they partied (Turner et al., 2008)
    • Serious consequences associated with alcohol use (Glider et al., 2001; Turner, Perkins, & Bauerle, 2008)
  • Fraternity, sorority, and service organization members who were exposed to tailored information regarding normative drinking behaviors of those groups reported greater reductions than comparison groups in (LaBrie et al., 2008):
    • Drinking behavior
    • Misperceptions of group norms
  • Compared with control universities, students attending universities with social norms marketing campaigns reported (DeJong et al., 2006):
    • Lower perceived student alcohol use
    • Less alcohol use
    • Fewer alcoholic drinks consumed during a drinking episode
  • A later replication of DeJong and colleagues’ (2006) study found that, compared with control universities, those participating in a social norms marketing campaign did not have significantly different rates of student drinking perceptions or self-reported alcohol consumption (DeJong et al., 2009).
  • Another study found that colleges employing social norms marketing programs did not differ on measures of student alcohol use compared to non-implementing schools (Wechsler et al., 2003).


A Guide to Marketing Social Norms for Health Promotion in Schools and Communities

A Multifaceted Social Norms Approach to Reduce High-Risk Drinking

Making Health Communication Programs Work


Athena Forum: Excellence in Prevention


Berkowitz, A. D. (2005). An overview of the social norms approach. In L. Lederman & L. Stewart (Eds.), Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated prevention campaign (pp. 193–214). New York, NY: Hampton Press.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonsen, N. R., . . . 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), 868–880.

DeJong, W., Schneider, S. K., Towvim, L. G., Murphy, M. J., Doerr, E. E., Simonsen, N. R., . . . Scribner, R. A. (2009). A multisite randomized trial of social norms marketing campaigns to reduce college student drinking: A replication failure. Substance Abuse, 30(2), 127–140.

Glider, P., Midyett, S. J., Mills-Novoa, B., Johannessen, K., & Collins, C. (2001). Challenging the collegiate rite of passage: A campus-wide social marketing media campaign to reduce binge drinking. Journal of Drug Education, 31(2), 207–220.

Haines, M. P. (1996). A social norms approach to preventing binge drinking at colleges and universities. Newton, MA: The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, Education Development Center, Inc.

Haines, M. P., Perkins, H. W., Rice, R. M., & Barker, G. (2005). A guide to marketing social norms for health promotion in schools and communities. National Social Norms Resource Center. Retrieved from

Haines, M., & Spear, S. F. (1996). Changing the perception of the norm: A strategy to decrease binge drinking among college students. Journal of College Health, 45(3), 134–140.

Johannessen, K., & Glider, P. (2003). The University of Arizona’s campus health social norms media campaign. In H. W. Perkins (Ed.), The social norms approach to preventing school and college age substance abuse: A handbook for educators, counselors, and clinicians. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

LaBrie, J. W., Hummer, J. F., Neighbors, C., & Pedersen, E. R. (2008). Live interactive group-specific normative feedback reduces misperceptions and drinking in college students: A randomized cluster trial. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22(1), 141–148.

Mattern, J. L., & Neighbors, C. (2004). Social norms campaigns: Examining the relationship between changes in perceived norms and changes in drinking levels. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 65(4), 489–493.

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.

Scribner, R. A., Theall, K. P., Mason, K., Simonsen, N., Kessel-Schneider, S., Gomberg-Towvim, L., & Dejong, W. (2011). Alcohol prevention on college campuses: The moderating effect of the alcohol environment on the effectiveness of social norms marketing campaigns. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(2), 232–239.

Turner, J., Perkins, H. W., & Bauerle, J. (2008). Declining negative consequences related to alcohol misuse among students exposed to a social norms marketing intervention on a college campus. Journal of American College Health, 57(1), 85–94.

Wechsler, H., Nelson, T. F., Lee, J. E., Seibring, M., Lewis, C., & Keeling, R. P. (2003). Perception and reality: A national evaluation of social norms marketing interventions to reduce college students’ heavy alcohol use. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 64(4), 484–494.