Researchers have established that college students tend to grossly overestimate the number of their peers who engage in high-risk alcohol consumption. This misperception is believed to influence students to drink more heavily by changing their perceptions of normative expectations (social norms) around drinking. In other words, students may feel pressured to drink because they believe that “everyone else is doing it”.

The basic idea behind a social norms marketing campaign is to turn this dynamic around by using campus-based media to inform students about the true levels of alcohol consumption among their peers. The actual levels of alcohol consumption among college students are much lower than students perceive them to be. Having accurate information about college alcohol use is hypothesized to lead to changes in perceptions of drinking norms on campus and, in turn, may lead to fewer students engaging in high-risk drinking.

Social norms focus on positive messages about healthy behaviors and attitudes that are common to most people in a group:
It does not use scare tactics or stigmatize an unhealthy behavior.
It avoids moralistic messages from authorities about how the target group “should” behave. Instead, it simply presents the healthy norms already existing in the group.
It builds on the assets already in the community, through participation by community members, and by highlighting those who make healthy choices.

Social norms theory describes situations in which individuals incorrectly perceive the attitudes and/or behaviors of peers and other community members to be different from their own. This phenomenon has also been called “pluralistic ignorance” Social norms theory predicts that interventions which correct these misperceptions by revealing the actual, healthier norm will have a beneficial effect on most individuals, who will either reduce their participation in potentially problematic behavior or be encouraged to engage in protective, healthy behaviors.

Positive: Focus on desired behaviors that the intended population already practices or supports. Avoid focusing on the undesired behaviors.

Inclusive: ensure that the message and images are reflective of the target audience, and express welcome to all the diverse members of this group. You will often see cartoon images or iconic images used in social norms advertising, to avoid inadvertently excluding any parts of the audience.

Empowering:  The message that “most of your peers already believe this/are doing this” dispels misperceptions, empowers those already making the healthy choice, and tells others, “you can do it too!”