Social norms campaigns on alcohol misuse among college students

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Social norms campaigns on alcohol misuse provide objective, normative information in order to reduce misperceptions of alcohol use and, ultimately, change drinking behavior1. Such campaigns for college students can be implemented through a variety of means, including posters, mail, online, face-to-face, and mass media approaches2

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Reduced alcohol use

  • Reduced excessive drinking

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced alcohol-related harms

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is some evidence that social norms campaigns on alcohol misuse lead to a small effect on reduced excessive drinking and quantity of alcohol consumption among college students, regardless of delivery mode2, 3. However, effects on alcohol-related problems and frequency of drinking vary with the way the intervention is delivered2. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Social norms campaigns delivered via web with computer feedback, individual face-to-face interventions, email-based, and marketing approaches, can reduce alcohol-related problems and quantity of consumption, and positively affect drinking norms2, 4, 5. Group feedback is less likely to change the frequency of drinking behavior compared to web-based or individual face-to-face feedback approaches2. A university campus-wide social marketing campaign may decrease binge drinking, the frequency of drinking, and negative academic outcomes3. An Australia-based study of a large community-based campaign targeting social norms about underage drinking shows an increase of the age at which alcohol initiation is considered acceptable6.

Studies suggest that using injunctive norms (i.e., what behavior we think other people approve of) can be more effective in changing behavior than using descriptive social norms (i.e., how we think people typically behave)7, but others suggest the opposite8. Message framing that focuses on both descriptive and injunctive norms can maximize effects in reducing underage drinking9. In an email-based social norms campaign, rank-framed messages (i.e., informing a college student of their drinking behavior relative to peers) appear to be more effective in reducing alcohol consumption than informing students of how they drink compares to expert recommendations5. Overall, effective social norms-based interventions are context-specific, apply normative information relevant to participants, and address social, psychological and physical determinants of behavior to support the desired change10.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has developed the College Alcohol Intervention Matrix to help universities and colleges identify effective alcohol interventions, including social norms campaigns11. Michigan State University has published the results of their social norms campaigns and launched the National Social Norms Center as a resource to promote effective social norms marketing campaigns12. Hobart and William Smith College is another example of a college that has undertaken an extensive social norms campaign13

Implementation Resources

CollegeAIM - National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. CollegeAIM: Alcohol intervention matrix.

NSNC - National Social Norms Center (NSNC). Michigan State University.

AEP - Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Alcohol Education Project (AEP).


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1 CG-Motor vehicle injury - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Motor vehicle injury prevention.

2 Cochrane-Foxcroft 2015 - Foxcroft DR, Moreira MT, Almeida Santimano NML, Smith LA. Social norms information for alcohol misuse in university and college students. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2015;2015(12):CD006748.

3 Hembroff 2021 - Hembroff LA, Martell D, Allen R, et al. The long-term effectiveness of a social norming campaign to reduce high-risk drinking: The Michigan State University experience, 2000–2014. Journal of American College Health. 2021;69(3):315-325.

4 Su 2018 - Su J, Hancock L, Wattenmaker McGann A, et al. Evaluating the effect of a campus-wide social norms marketing intervention on alcohol-use perceptions, consumption, and blackouts. Journal of American College Health. 2018;66(3):219-224.

5 Pariera 2018 - Pariera KL. Replication of a rank-framed social norms experiment. Communication Studies. 2018;69(3):263-271.

6 Jones 2018a - Jones SC, Andrews K, Francis KL, Akram M. When are they old enough to drink? Outcomes of an Australian social marketing intervention targeting alcohol initiation. Drug and Alcohol Review. 2018;37:S375-S383.

7 Rhodes 2020 - Rhodes N, Shulman HC, McClaran N. Changing norms: A meta-analytic integration of research on social norms appeals. Human Communication Research. 2020;46(2-3):161-191.

8 Smith 2018 - Smith JR, Louis WR, Abraham C. When and how does normative feedback reduce intentions to drink irresponsibly? An experimental investigation. Addiction Research and Theory. 2018;26(4):256-266.

9 Padon 2016 - Padon AA, Rimal RN, Jernigan D, Siegel M, DeJong W. Tapping into motivations for drinking among youth: Normative beliefs about alcohol use among underage drinkers in the United States. Journal of Health Communication. 2016;21(10):1079-1087.

10 Yamin 2019 - Yamin P, Fei M, Lahlou S, Levy S. Using social norms to change behavior and increase sustainability in the real world: A systematic review of the literature. Sustainability. 2019;11(20):5847.

11 CollegeAIM - National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. CollegeAIM: Alcohol intervention matrix.

12 NSNC - National Social Norms Center (NSNC). Michigan State University.

13 AEP - Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Alcohol Education Project (AEP).