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U. of Virginia Study Touts Success of Social-Norms Marketing in Cutting Drinking

August 11, 2008

Exposing students at the University of Virginia to accurate information about campus drinking habits significantly reduced the negative consequences of alcohol consumption, according to a study just published in the Journal of American College Health.

In 1999 Virginia started a “social norms” marketing campaign to inform freshmen that, based on campus surveys, students drink less than their peers perceive that they do. The university used newspaper advertisements, posters, and Web pages to deliver messages about drinking norms.

Social-norms marketing as a viable technique to reduce drinking has been sharply controversial, with some studies supporting the concept and others debunking it.

According to a description of the new study, the campaign reduced the number of students injured in alcohol-related incidents; those who drove after drinking; and those who had unprotected sex. Furthermore, there was a sharp increase in the number of students who reported experiencing none of 10 alcohol-related consequences.

The authors of a report on the study were James Turner, executive director of student health at Virginia; Jennifer Bauerle, director of the National Social Norms Institute, at Virginia; and H. Wesley Perkins, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. —Eric Hoover