Social norms based messages to reduce high-risk drinking

black letter on yellow background rectangle.

In 1989, Northern Illinois University wanted to reduce students’ high-risk (binge) drinking behaviour. At the time, the university housed 23,000 students. Its researchers adopted the social norms theory to craft messages for their social marketing campaign.

This post discusses their steps. The contents of this post are from Michael Haines’s research paper published in 1996. and the Social Norms National Research and Resources website.

Step 1: They began with a situational analysis.

They surveyed students for their perceptions and drinking behaviour when partying in 1988. Of all students, 69.7 per cent of students perceived that they binge drink (more than five drinks) when partying, But, in reality, only 43 per cent of them admitted that they did that. So, they found a perceived – practice gap.

They decided that this was an ideal situation to apply the social norms theory to craft messages for a social marketing campaign. As we can see, the majority (100 – 43), 57 per cent of students, reported that they did not binge drink when they partied.

Step 2: Then, they framed messages to correct the misperceptions.

Message framing

Following is one of the messages they crafted to highlight the campus norm.

The key message was, “Most students drink moderately”.

Some of its supporting messages were;

  • “Most NIU students (55 per cent) drink five or fewer drinks when they party”.
  • “Most students drink five or fewer drinks when they party”
  • “Most men drink 0-5 drinks and most women drink 0-3 drinks when they party”.

More recently, they have added some tips for safe drinking practices.

Following was one of the actual posters; Other than the message itself, they practised other rules when choosing visuals and other design aspects of the post.

Haines mentions the rules they followed when crafting the message.

They;

  1. Kept the message simple.
  2. Used it consistently.
  3. Told the truth.
  4. Highlighted the positive norm (in this case, it is moderation).
    • They highlighted the word “most” to make it easy to remember.
    • This may not apply to settings where the accepted norm is abstinence).
    • They did not use patronising sentences such as “do nor drink too much”.

You can find several messages similar to the above with visuals at the end of this post. All these were norms-based.


Compare the norms-based messages with these mainstream media messages

Mainstream media loves to sensationalize the facts; At the time they reported the survey findings as follows:

“Binge drinking is widespread”

“Almost half of all students surveyed at 140 US colleges admitted to “binge” drinking, leading to everything from fights to vandalism”.


Ensuring the messages’ credibility

The message’s credibility matters. And, always local data become more relevant and engaging than using national data. Therefore, the survey data from a credible source carry more value. delivering the messages by a physician or a healthcare worker/educator/ nurse will enhance the message’s credibility.

Regarding visuals, using students similar to the target population resonate the message with them.


Unintended consequences of norms-based messages

The project managers need to be mindful of the unintended consequences of norms-based messaging. This can happen in any public health intervention project. Some of those that Haines mentions are;

  1. Administrators might see, mistakenly, that binge drinking is not a big problem.
  2. Others might see that this is an attempt at denial by campus administrators.

We need to take proactive measures to meet these potential challenges. It is important to emphasize that we will take seriously any alcohol-related adverse event.


Step 3: They decided on the message delivery methods to the exact target population.

Although seemed simple, it is not so.

Print media

By the time this study was carried out, print media was the mainstream, unlike today’s social media space. Therefore, they prepared campus (portrait size)/bus (landscape size) posters, billboards, bulletin boards, campus newspaper ads, handouts, and flyers.

The dosage also matters; they changed the posters 8 times a year. And, they kept the momentum with letters to the editors, and articles also. Furthermore, they gave a $5 incentive if the student representatives found the poster up in a student’s room. Concerning newspaper ads, they placed two ads weekly.

Interpersonal methods

The intervention also included guest lectures, town meetings, group discussions etc. However, these methods are costly and time-consuming. Haines caution that the main hurdle in such methods is to reach the real target audience who should hear the message unless such events are mandatory. This is because students who show the greatest interest attend such meetings and they are the ones who drink the least.

In contrast, Haines found evidence that those who drink most were more likely to read ads and flyers. However, the interpersonal methods became good opportunities to pre-test the messages.

A quick tip:

One quick way to find whether the message reached the target audience is to carry out a random survey with 20-50 students who hang around in high-traffic areas on campus.


Methods to ensure the message retention

Not only the message needs to be delivered to the correct target audience, but we need to make sure that they remember and internalise it. Other than the message crafting criteria, the delivery frequency at the adequate dosage also matters.

Steps to make the message sticky

  • Increase the delivery frequency,
  • Keep the message fresh b delivering it in different formats: posters, flyers, buttons, display adverts, ads etc.
  • Delivery consistency: During the fall semester, the campaign released three media exposures on three specific days weekly – flyers, a display ad, and a classified ad. They have maintained high visibility throughout the semester.
  • Rewarding people who remember the message.
  • Dramatising with the slogans;
    • They asked in the events, “who knows how many drinks most students drink when they party? The first student with the correct answer would receive a gift and the rest received flyers with the message that ” most students drink five or fewer drinks when they party”. If no one knew the answer they all got the flyer with the same message. This was carried out for two weeks in the fall and another two weeks in the spring semester.

Targeting sub-cultures

Although the campaign messages targeted the whole 23,000 students, the researchers found that in some subcultures, students exaggerate their actual drinking behaviour depending on how they value the drinking culture. The messages for these subcultures may have to tailor to them. Getting to know subcultures need specific surveys, meetings, and focus group discussions with them.

Did it work?

Michael Haines’ following two slides reveal the impact of the intervention. The slides are from his presentation at sliderserve.com. We can find that the students’ perception of heavy drinking declined from 69.3 per cent in 1989 to 52.7 per cent in 1991, two years after the intervention. During the period, their actual heavy drinking reclined from 44.8 per cent to 37.2 per cent. And, the reporting of fighting reduced from 29.5 per cent to 24 per cent while injury to others from 19.6 per cent to 13.4 per cent.

The decline continued over the years.


There are situations that norms-based interventions do not work.

The social norms theory does not work in all situations. Following are some of those;

  • When healthier behaviour is not the norm. For example, if the survey finds says that most binge drink, then we cannot use the normative messages.
  • When the cultural norm is abstinence, not moderation.
  • When the survey says that high-risk drinkers perceive accurately the actual high-risk drinking behavior.
  • When we reach the “floor”; the social norms theory does not work for those who are immune to social pressure. For example, those who are dependent on alcohol and anti-social groups will not respond to social norms. We need different approaches to them.

What is the latest evidence about the norms-based interventions’ success?

Christine Walter et al. (2021) reported that social norms interventions and systematic reviews found small-to-medium-term effects of social norms interventions on various alcohol-related outcomes. They further say the results often do not last long. However, we need to keep in mind that even small gains at the individual level translate into large gains at the population level as demonstrated by Rose’s “prevention paradox”.


Some more norms-based messages from Slideserve.

Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *