Social norms marketing for addiction prevention

Social norms marketing is emerging as a major force in changing behaviors – including problem drinking – among certain populations. But just which populations might benefit from this prevention technique? And how do social norms campaigns work? We explore the “power of normal” in this enlightening new field of communications.

minute read

Social norm marketing* combines research and education to address common misconceptions.   The problem with misconceptions and untruths is that they can often reinforce patterns of thinking.  If you think that lots of other people black out or that drinking 10-11 units of alcohol is normal…you are more likely to continue engaging in potentitally alcoholic behaviors.  This is the way that it was for me.

The practice of social norm marketing aims to identify what is normal in a certain population through anonymous surveys and other types of research.  Then, the social norms are broadcast to the population at large and the effects of the correct information are then measured.  Behaviors that are initially perceived as “normal” can be demystified and made more clear.  For example,

It’s NOT NORMAL to start fights while out on a Saturday night.

It’s NOT NORMAL to drink more than 5 units of alcohol per week.

It’s NOT NORMAL to wake up with injuries after a night out on the town.

That sort of thing.

Social norm marketing makes absolute sense to me, because in my experience, false conceptions about the world around me fueled my own addictions.  By telling the truth about how a population is actually behaving, you take away the normalcy of addictive behavior and the motivation to engage in the behavior.  By showing how a majority of people act, you can begin to question your own choices.  This is way cool.

In my opinion, one caveat remains.  And that is that is it important that the population you choose to define must identify on a very personal level with the community-at-large.  Indeed, community participation must become a part of personal identity in order for social norms marketing to work.  In other words, individuals will only change their behaviors if they give a damn about what other people in their group are doing and if they want to be within the bounds of what is “normal”.

So, I’ve brainstormed a few groups in which social norms marketing might work.  But what do you think?  Do addicts and alcoholics fundamentally want to belong to a peer group?  Are addicts always seeking the fringes of society?  Would social norms marketing have worked for you or a loved on if applied early enough?  As always, comments are welcome.

SOCIAL NORMS CAMPAIGN TARGET GROUPS (to address problem drinking)

  • High school students
  • University students
  • NASCAR fans
  • Jam band followers
  • Sports fans (by team or league)
  • Military veterans
  • Religious affiliation
*I’ve gotten into the habit of searching for addiction-related information in media.  On the radio.  Posters at the cinema.  The mail.  This can become an addiction in itself, but it often results in surprise revelations in uncommon places.  So it was with a feeling of enlightenment that I came across the concept of social norm marketing while skimming the Winter 2008 U.Va. alumni magazine.
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.


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  1. I think this is an excellent idea. I do marketing and communications for a D&A treatment center and so much for our work is disbanding myths and untruths about addiction. We put up an alcoholism survey on our website to try and get people to see that blacking out is not normal, when you family is expressing concerns; that is not normal, etc. In many circles (especially in youth) it is seen as a badge of honor to drink until you do crazy things, vomit, and even wet your own bed. “Ha, ha, that’s awesome!” To be honest the bed wetting story is a personal recount from a group of adult co-workers at an old job I had. No joke. It was very sad to me.

    Celebrities glorify drunken behaviors, even using drugs. So do movies. And there is still such an unfortunate stigma of the “pathetic drunk” and the “dirty addict.” No one wants to be in that category so they tell themselves it is not a problem. They seek reinforcement from their friend to tell them how cool it is to party so hard. And the simple truth is that so many people just do not know better. It is not talked about… we need to change that. We are changing that.

  2. Thanks, Cole. I thought that the facts might arm the addict with some more fuel for addiction, too. Until I saw the well-chosen facts from recent polls from my university, known to be a party school. Things like 65% of all students have 0-5 drinks per week and 10% have none. And 96% of people don’t get into fights when they are drinking. I think that researchers are there to ask the questions that they can turn around into positives…and from what I’m reading…it works! Check out this NPR article:

  3. This is an interesting idea. Personally, I had to be shown that it was not normal to behave the way that I was while in my addiction. As a matter of a fact, my girlfriend is a “normie” and I will never forget the first time that I went out with her and her friends. EVERYONE was normal. They all drank one, maybe one and a half, drinks and called it quits at midnight. It was the craziest thing ever! I have gotten more used to it and can see the effects that social norm marketing could have on the prevention of addiction. The only problem I see with social norm marketing is that the in college, and sometimes high school, the social norm is using drugs, particularly alcohol. It is hard to convince someone that it is not normal to drink as much as they do when 80% (that statistic is fabricated, but probably close to the truth) of their class is talking about it the next day. The addict may seek the fringes of society but probably not intentionally. Initially, the idea is to “fit in” with the crowd. However, as the disease progresses, society casts the problematic user to the fringes, perhaps rightfully so. Many people gather here on the outskirt of normal society because that is the sub-culture that fits them. It is a lot easier to change your friends than it is to change your behavior.

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