Truth in a Bottle

By Ad Published on .

Advertisers have long known that emphasizing peer pressure can increase sales. Now, research says, it can also keep students from getting drunk.

In 1996, binge drinking on campus became what road rage was in 1998 - a media circus that united politicians and upstanding citizens a in a veriatble frenzy of concern.

Now, like the vastly exaggerated impact of road rage, reports of large-scale alcohol abuse among students have also been largely discredited. And the numbers, rarely as high as initially reported anyway, are dropping further. That's because schools have embarked on a campaign to tell students how much their peers typically imbibe. Through promotional frisbees, posters, and computer screen savers, students learn that the average per-capita guzzle is only about four drinks per social gathering. Informing kids of this norm has actually helped to cut down problematic alcohol consumption at the schools.

If you're wondering how that figures, take a look at the research of sociology professor Dr. H. Wesley Perkins. In the early 80's, Dr. Perkins and his partner Dr. Alan D. Berkowitz conducted research on alcohol use and abuse at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. One surprising finding was that students thought their peers were drinking a lot more than they actually were. "Since then," says Perkins, "more research showed that time and again, how much students were drinking and how frequently they were drinking on special occasions, they thought their peers were drinking a lot more."

Such info, Perkins believed, might prove helpful to substance abuse prevention programs, which for a while had been unsuccessful at schools nationwide. "The starting point in the prevention strategy is to address these misperceptions," Perkins advocates. This led him to employ a "social-norms" marketing strategy to prevention, which attempts to "sell" the reality that most students don't drink that much. In the first 18 months of the campaign, the perception of heavy drinking at parties or bars dropped 15%, and the drinking itself at gatherings dropped by the same amount. Frequency of consumption dropped 21%. Perkins says he is working with 50 other schools to develop their programs. He's also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help with his research.

"In college populations, there's no evidence that scare tactics work," believes Perkins. "If you're simply trying to say something is potentially risky or harmful, most kids at that age aren't worried about their mortality. Also, the scarier the ads are, the less believable they're thought to be. Most gruesome and scary messages don't work because the kids don't believe it will happen to them, and statistics say, they're right."

Naysayers fear that making students aware of an average might encourage non-drinkers to feel like they have to become part of the norm, but Perkins says that conclusion is flawed. "Before they were told the average was three, they, along with everyone else, thought the average was seven. For the abstainers, you're actually taking pressure off of them."

What's at work here is an understanding that advertisers have had all along. Take the Gap campaign. "Obviously, not everybody's wearing khakis," says Perkins, "but you can sell that message. The difference between that kind of advertising and this is that the social-norms approach is based on the truth. We think better choices are made when people have accurate information."

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