Using social marketing to explicitly challenge individuals to change their perceptions: A viable alternative to social norms messages?

Moore et al [1] report on a novel application of social marketing messages to reduce alcohol consumption among 1st year university students in Wales. The novelty was in their using a setting not yet evaluated in a UK RCT – namely university halls of residences.

In planning their study the authors envisioned developing social norms messages. Development of social norms messages was problematic after their survey suggested the majority of Welsh students reported hazardous/harmful weekly and per occasion drinking. Consistent with the social norms approach, the authors concluded that “communicating absolute values of drinking would risk further normalizing hazardous drinking” (Moore et al., 2013: 3). In situations like this, where the social norm is not conducive to the creation of a positive message, it can be possible to identify a secondary behaviour or attitude (e.g. number of alcohol free days) to focus messages around.

Moore et al did not identify an alternative positive social norm, their social marketing message instead focussed on reducing student perceptions of the level of misperception. Messages explicitly challenged students to consider their own perception of the norm (e.g. “Most of us significantly overestimate the amount that others drink”; “How much do you think the average female first year student drinks? Halve it. It really is less than you think”). Explicitly asking individuals to consciously attend to their misperceptions had not been investigated as an alternative approach to social norms messages. Social norms messages make visible actual norms thereby creating space for individuals to reflect on how their perceptions match (or not) reality; the accuracy of the perceived norm is not generally made explicit. Moore et al. informed students that their perceptions were incorrect and gave some indication of the direction of the actual norm.  Moore et al’s (2013) findings suggest that explicitly challenging perceptions of perceptions is not effective in changing behaviour and is therefore not a viable alternative to the use of social norms messages.

Not all the messages included by Moore et al focussed on challenging perceptions of misperceptions. Their social marketing campaign included messages intended to change behaviour and attitudes, these messages were not consistent with the social norms approach in that they:

(1) focussed on negative outcomes (e.g. “Most students drink to feel confident, but 70% have embarrassed themselves when drunk”). A social norms approach message would focus on positive behavioural/attitudinal norms.

(2) did not provide data to back up assertions (e.g. “Time for a break? Many students limit their drinking by including soft drinks in the night”). A social norms approach message would normally include details on the proportion of students who engaged in the named activity/behaviour.

(3) Positioned drinking and ‘getting drunk’ as normal behaviour for university students (e.g. “86% of males have never damaged their halls of residence when drunk”).

Moore et al intended to test the effectiveness of social norms messages to reduce alcohol consumption among 1st year university students living in halls of residences in Wales. Moore et al have continued to label their intervention as a ‘social norms approach’; due to the actual norms collected they actually developed a social marketing campaign. Their social marketing campaign was unique in its focus on perceptions of perceptions – their findings suggest that explicitly challenging perceptions of perceptions is not a viable alternative to social norms messages.

Dr Bridgette Bewick, University of Leeds, and Dr John McAlaney, Bournemouth University


  1. Moore, G.F., et al., An exploratory cluster randomised trial of a university halls of residence based social norms marketing campaign to reduce alcohol consumption among 1st year students. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 2013. 8.