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What Social Norms?

One high school’s prevention approach involving social norms marketing

By Jerry Bohren

“Students overestimate the percentage of their peers who use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs (ATOD).  When students overestimate, they justify peer use AND are more likely to use themselves.  Our project’s focus is to challenge and correct students’ misperceptions about peer ATOD use.  We will accomplish this through promoting all the positive things happening in our SPASH community.”

— This is the mantra for the SPASH Social Norms Project

The Stevens Point Area School District has implemented an ATOD prevention project in the senior high school, grades 10 through 12.  The project is funded by a Wisconsin ATOD grant.  The district decided to use a comprehensive and intensive prevention program to reduce misperceptions of ATOD use among high school students.  This prevention program is grounded in science-based, research driven social norms theory and social marketing strategies.  The project proposes to accomplish: 1) correct misperceptions of student ATOD use; 2) increase the use of normative prevention statements; and 3) increase parent, faculty and staff that report having a conversation with a high school student about ATOD.

Data on students has been collected, analyzed and promoted intensively and comprehensively to students, parents and school officials to establish true social norms for the students.  The campaign includes a variety of promotional strategies and materials with the intent to correct exaggerated beliefs by high school students that the majority of their peers use ATOD.  Check out the project’s website for posters, billboard, incentive giveaways and radio spots used in the campaign at

Research has shown that the strongest predictors of student drug use are their attitudes toward use and their perceptions of peer use.  Experts recommend correcting misperception about peer use as a primary strategy.  Correcting misperceptions by promoting actual norms for student use has resulted in decreased drinking by students and has increased prevalence of healthy protective behaviors such as refusing alcohol when offered.  This approach is supported by research on Social Norms Theory (Berkowitz & Perkins, 1986).

The social norms approach has been selected for these reasons:

1.   The social norms approach is recognized as a “best practice” strategy largely due to available science-based and research driven effectiveness data.

2.   The vast majority of alcohol education and prevention has included scare tactics, avoidance based messages, and focuses on what “students shouldn’t do” while this approach is positive and highlights what “students already do and should keep doing.”

3.   The approach includes both parents and faculty/staff/administrators as both are important in the life of the students.  This strategy places responsibility on these key adults to discuss norms and expectations with youth.

4.   Finally, this approach avoids employing the traditional “watered down” negative messages that get delivered to all youth — regardless of their behavior — which contributes to the majority of youth “tuning out.”

Social marketing techniques provide the foundation for project delivery.  Social marketing is the adaptation of commercial marketing strategies to programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences (Andreasen, 1994),  To ensure campaign success, a variety of promotional strategies and materials are employed and will be used for next year’s campaign.

In the next school year, the project will resurvey to gather current normative behavior on students, parents, and school officials.  The data will be analyzed in depth to monitor levels of misperceptions regarding ATOD use.  In time, the project hopes to decrease alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use among SPASH students through the positive social norms approach.

To get involved in this exciting project or for more information, please contact

Denise Enders,

SPASH Social Norms  Coordinator,

1201 North Point Drive,

Stevens Point, WI 54481

Phone: 715-343-6627 (office)

School Main Office Phone: