What is Social Norms Marketing? It Reduce Alcohol Abuse

What is social norms marketing? It’s an effective and efficient way to change behaviors. And it’s an inexpensive and rather easy way to do so. It’s often also called the social norms approach or social norms clarification. So don’t be confused by that.

College professor Dr. H. Wesley Perkins developed the social norms marketing approach. In this interview, he answers the question “What is social norms marketing?” in more detail.

Interview: What is Social Norms Marketing?


Dr. Perkins, your research and insights form the basis of a unique way to reduce alcohol abuse among students. Could you please explain your approach?

Dr. Perkins–

what is social norms
H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D.

I’d be happy to. Students typically think that their peers drink much more than they really do. They also think their peers are more permissive toward alcohol abuse than they really are.

This general misperception is important. It fuels fuels the problem. That’s because students try to live up to a distorted image of what their peers think and do. Therefore, students end up engaging in abusive drinking behaviors that they would not otherwise do.

This leads to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Problem use actually becomes more widespread. That’s as students drink at higher levels. This, in order to conform to what they imagine to be the norm.


That makes sense. But how can we break this “viscious cycle”?

Dr. Perkins–

Basically, we need to correct misperceptions. The logic is simple. For example, when students discover that fewer students are “binging,” then they will be less likely to “binge.”

First, surveys are taken on campuses to discover actual levels of alcohol abuse. This is followed by widespread publicizing  these facts. Rather quickly, the actual abuse of alcohol drops greatly.


That’s impressive. Have your very positive results at your Hobart and William Smith Colleges been duplicated elsewhere?

Dr. Perkins–

Yes, this approach is used successfully at institutions large and small. Urban and rural. Public and private. And all over the country.


Well, so-called binge drinking is a problem on campuses. The press is full of alarming reports about how serious and common alcohol abuse is among young people. Isn’t it important to spread the word and warn students of what to expect at college? That way, they can avoid abusing alcohol when they get there.

Dr. Perkins–

It’s true. Alcohol abuse is a very serious problem. But we need to be careful about how we present and discuss these problems. If we’re not careful, we may actually increase them.

Consider “binge drinking” as an example. Reports might indicate that 25% of the students on a campus are frequent “binge” drinkers. Yet simply announcing this finding also contributes to a belief that alcohol abuse and student life go hand in hand. It indirectly helps reinforce the false notion that most students view frequent intoxication as acceptable.

We could report, on the other hand, that 75% of the student body does NOT engage in frequent “binge” drinking. This would reinforce the attitudes and behaviors of those who do not engage in such behaviors. In essence, it would help empower them to avoid such behaviors.

Stressing drinking problems on campus may end up being counter productive. That’s if students’ distorted perceptions of the actual behaviors and attitudes on campus become even more inflated. Thus, an alternative is to report the same facts differently. That’s by focusing on the majority behavior. This creates a positive belief about acceptable social norms.

Of course, the the actual data remain the same, whether presented negatively or positively. We must remain concerned about the abuse of alcohol. But we must always carefully consider the impact of the message on those who receive it.


So this approach involves correcting the distorted misperceptions of students. And it does so by giving the actual, positive facts about drinking among their peers?

Dr. Perkins–

That’s it in a nutshell. Much of our research is now directed toward learning the most effective ways of correcting false beliefs. Techniques to correct misperceptions is still in its infancy. A number of techniques are emerging to correct false beliefs.

Campuses have used mass marketing strategies. They include newspaper articles, ads, posters, and media events. The goal is to publicize true norms and help reduce misperceptions.  Campuses have also used focused workshops and orientation programs. These allow students to reveal their true attitudes and to contrast actual norms in a group with misperceptions.

At my own college we challenge misperceptions. To do so we also use email and the classroom as well. We need more techniques. And more studies about their relative effectiveness.


I think more educators, parents, and news people should be aware of this effective approach. Thank you for describing it.

Dr. Perkins–

You’re welcome.

About Dr. Perkins

Dr. H. Wesley Perkins is Professor of Sociology at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has a strong record of achievements. Learn more about Dr. Perkins.

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