Drinking and Drinking and Driving:

Use of Social Norms Marketing in High Schools and College and Universities*











Dale O. Ritzel, Dan Shannon, Donna Bernert, Dennis Leitner,

George Vineyard, Keith White, and Jennifer Kampmeier

Safety Center

Southern Illinois University

Carbondale, IL 62901-6731

















*Sponsorship of Research

Office of the Illinois Secretary of State

Illinois Department of Transportation


High-risk drinking

For years, colleges and universities have invested in alcohol awareness programs, peer education, and “alternative” recreational activities, yet the % of high-risk drinking and drinking and driving has continued at intolerable levels since the 1980s.  After dropping significantly in the 1980s (at least for awhile), when the legal drinking age was raised to 21 in all 50 states, the amount of teen drinking has settled in at a rate many consider too high and a continuing health hazard. 

Fake Ids and underage drinking, long a staple of the late teens, have been in the news again since the 19 year old twin daughters of President George W. Bush, Jenna and Barbara, had a brush with the law.

Some recent data

The average age that teens start drinking dropped from 18 in the mid-1960s to about 16 in the last part of the 1990s, research suggests (SBMHSA).  Those who start drinking younger are more likely to become alcohol dependent (NIAAA).  The rates of underage drinking declined significantly in the 1980s and have remained relatively constant through the 1990s.  Teen traffic deaths related to alcohol dropped from 3,751 in 1990 to 2,273 in 1999 (NHTSA).

The current college scene

Many college officials are now trying to re-engineer both the campus environment and the community in ways that will discourage high-risk drinking.

Perceived Drinking Norms of College Students

College students take in all kinds of information about what is typical or normative among their peers.  What is seen as typical can then become what is expected.  Where students see lots of students using alcohol, they may feel pressure to fit in by drinking.  Maybe where they see fewer students drinking, they feel less pressure and may drink less.

What is critical?

What are critical here is not just the actual amount of alcohol consumption but students’ perceptions of how much drinking is going on.  These perceptions are prone to error.  Researchers have found that, whatever the true level of campus high-risk drinking, students tends to greatly overestimate the percentage of their peers who engage in dangerous alcohol consumption.  Often the disparity between reality and perception is enormous. 

Montana State University study (18-24 year olds)

Men reported 3 drinks per occasion, but other men of their age have 7 drinks.  Women reported have 2 drinks per occasion, but estimate peers have 5 drinks.  If college students believe that most students drink heavily, then high-risk drinking rates may rise in response.  The more students who believe that high-risk drinking is common, the more high-risk drinking will actually occur.

Social Norms Approach

Inform students about how much drinking is really going on, as opposed to what the students think is the case.  This truth may change students perception of the norm, which in turn should lead to reductions in high-risk drinking.  The effort to get this message out, using publicity events, student newspapers, posters, email messages, and other campus-based media, is call a social norms marketing campaign.

Some successful uses of Social Norm Marketing

Northern Illinois University.  In 3 years high-risk drinking rate went from 43% to 25%.

University of Arizona.  In 2 years high-risk drinking rate went from 43% to 31%.

Western Washington University.  In 2 years high-risk drinking rate went from 34% to 227%.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  In 18 months, 21% decline in high-risk drinking rates.

Social Norms in Illinois – Drinking

From a study which is published elsewhere in the journal and from information available for the Southern Illinois University CORE project, we found the following information about drinking and driving attitudes and behaviors of high school juniors and seniors and college students in Illinois.  Six out of 10 high school and college students do not drink or rarely ever drink alcohol.  One half of high school students average less than one drink per week. High school students perceive that college students drink more than they do in reality.  The majority of high school and college students do not participate in binge drinking (5 or more drinks in a setting).  Eighty two percent of high school students disapprove of binge drinking.  Over 78% of high school students felt that binge drinking even once was of moderate or great risk.  Most college men drink 0-4 drinks when they party.  Most college women drink 0-3 drinks when they party.



Social Norms in Illinois – Drinking and Driving

Again from the some two sources listed above, we have found that high school juniors and seniors and college students have the following attitudes and behaviors about drinking and driving.  More than 60% of high school and college students report never drinking and driving during the previous year.  Forty percent of high school and college students have never been passengers with someone who had been drinking.  Ninety one percent of college students do not drive after having 5 or more drinks.  Only 2% of college students are arrested fro DUI.  Eighty five percent of college students NEVER drive in an alcohol-impaired condition during the academic year.  Sixty seven percent of high school students reported not drinking and driving during the past 30 days.  The vast majority of college students in Illinois do not exceed the .08% BAC limit if they drink.  Most college students (97%) disapprove of drunkenness which interferes with responsibilities.

Social Norm Campaign-  Some things that seem to work

Collect baseline data.  It is important that you use current data on drinking and driving practices of students for your message content.  Many courses of data exist, including local, state and national studies.  Many colleges and universities already gather local data with the CORE Survey (developed by Presley, et al., Southern Illinois University Carbondale).   

Developing a message.   Develop a message that highlights non-binge norms.  Keep it simple.  Tell the truth.  Be consistent.  Highlight the norm of moderation.   Some good simple messages that can be used include those listed in the Social Norms in Illinois – Drinking and Social Norms in Illinois Drinking and Driving heading above.  A good general (and true) message might be “Most students are concerned about risks associated with alcohol and drinking and driving and protect themselves by drinking moderately and not driving after drinking.”

Ensuring credibility.   Print material more believable than other media.  Indicate source of data.  Health professional more believable than peer educators, friends, or other interpersonal sources.  Use and cite scientific sources.  Silly, satirical, cute, or juvenile formats work against scientific integrity of message.  Local data are more credible than national data.  Photographs of students (people who look like students) attract more attention.

Delivering the message.  Do print media – flyers and leaflets, posters, newspaper advertisements, editorials, letters to the editor, articles, billboards, and bulletin boards.  Students who drink the most are most likely to read alcohol information, ads, and flyers.  Do pilot test of trying to reach the target group.

Supporting Message Retention.  Two of the most important factors include having simple content and having good source credibility.  Frequency of exposure to the message is a third important factor.  The message should be communicated in many different forms.  The same simple message has to be heard over and over again in different forms of media on different days.  Reward people who remember your message – like call in radio programs do.

Implications for College Administration

Do yearly alcohol/drinking surveys.  Make the information public.  Champion the positive norms associated with the majority of students who drink responsibly.  Students want a safe campus, no matter how much they drink, and the vast majority will support social norms that reject impaired driving, assault, date rape, and vandalism.