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, even revolutionary, 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 believe that their peers drink much more than they actually do. They also believe that their peers have much more permissive attitudes toward alcohol abuse than they really have.

The importance of this general misperception is that it fuels problem behaviors. That’s because students try to live up to a distorted image of what their peers believe 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 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 “bingeing,” 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 extensive and widespread publicizing of that information. Rather quickly, the actual abuse of alcohol drops dramatically.


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

Dr. Perkins–

Yes, this approachis used successfully at institutions large and small, urban and rural, public and private, 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.

Emphasizing pervasive drinking problems on campus may end up being counterproductive. That’s if students’ highly excessive misperceptions of the actual behaviors and attitudes on campus become even more inflated. Thus, an alternative is to report the same information a bit differently. That’s by focusing on the majority behavior and creating a more positive mindset 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. However, 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 regarding alcohol consumption patterns 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 about drinking. Unfortunately, the development of programs to address these misperceptions is still in its adolescence. A variety of reliable techniques are emerging now to collect and communicate data on norms and misperceptions.

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, however, 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 an admirable record of achievements. Learn more about Dr. Perkins.

Sites answering “What is social norms marketing?”

Alcohol and Education Project.

National Social Norms Center