Social Norms Campaign Strategy - Final Report

The Montana Social Norms Project (MSNP) was started in 1998 with a grant from the Montana Department of Transportation. At that time, social norms campaigns had already proven successful at reducing high-risk drinking at several college campuses nationwide.18 This initial grant allowed MSNP to begin implementing its pioneering effort to apply social norms theory to a large, statewide, non-campus population.

The Montana Model of Social Norms Marketing

Implementing the first statewide social norms campaign called for the development of a model allowing for the application of successful social norms strategies on a wider, macro level. The Montana Model of Social Norms Marketing 7 is a seven-step process that combines social marketing with the social norms approach to prevention. It is a social norms marketing model that can work on statewide level for a variety of issues, turning social science into social action by correcting misperceptions and building upon the positive attitudinal and behavioral norms that already exist in a culture. The Montana Model has been the foundation of several other MSNP campaigns, on issues ranging from tobacco use among teenagers to adult safety belt use.

Montana Young Adult Alcohol Phone Survey

In the spring of 1998, MSNP formulated and conducted the first Montana Young Adult Alcohol Phone Survey, a statewide phone canvass of 500 18-to-24-year-olds.8 Subjects were asked questions about their own alcohol consumption and a companion set of questions about their perceptions of the drinking behaviors of their peers. This survey was used to determine whether misperceptions existed in this statewide population of young adults.

The young adults in this sample overwhelmingly reported moderation - or even total abstinence - as their predominant drinking behavior. Eighty-one percent reported they consumed four or fewer drinks during a typical night out, or chose not to drink at all. The average amount consumed by men was three drinks; for women, the average was two drinks. The average perception of the norm was quite different. Young adult men and women in Montana perceived that men their age were typically consuming seven drinks and that women their age were typically consuming five. In regard to drinking after driving, only 15 percent reported that they had driven within one hour of consuming two or more drinks during the previous month, but 96 percent believed that the average Montanan their age had done so. In spite of their own widely reported moderate behavior, respondents greatly over-exaggerated the frequency of excessive drinking and the prevalence and acceptance of driving after drinking among their peers. This result is just what social norms theory predicts: that individuals tend to exaggerate the rate at which their peers engage in dangerous behaviors, and simultaneously underestimate the ways in which community behavior mitigates towards health and safety. Figure 1 displays the extreme disparity between the actual norm, based on the aggregate of reported personal behaviors, and the perceived frequency of driving after drinking among the surveyed population.

Figure 1
Actual Gender Norms versus Young Adult Perceptions of Gender Norms
figure 1 - click for long description


An Initial MOST of Us Prevent Drinking and Driving Campaign

Based on these findings, MSNP crafted a social norms campaign around the message that most 18-to-24-year-old Montanans drink four, fewer or no drinks at all in a typical night out. The campaign was designed to reduce heavy alcohol consumption among Montana's young adults, with the expected effect that if drinking levels were reduced, the incidence of dangerous driving after drinking would also decrease. The message was disseminated through free media (such as public service announcements), posters, and the involvement of campus and community leaders.

A second statewide telephone survey of 18-to-24-year-olds was conducted in 2000. The results showed that young adults who had been exposed to MOST of Us messages about young adult norms of drinking in moderation and avoiding driving after drinking reported a significantly lower incidence of driving after drinking during the month prior to the survey than those who did not recall any prevention messages at all.

Prevention campaigns that focused on the dire health or legal consequences of driving after drinking were also appearing across the State during this period. One that ran frequently played off the State motto: over a picture of a tombstone and a car crash, the message read, "Don't Let Montana Be Your Last Best Place." These frightening messages, however, did not appear to deter people from engaging in potentially dangerous behavior. Survey respondents who recalled messages other than MOST of Us messages (designated "Other" in table 1, below), including this type of scare message, were at the greatest risk, compared to those who had seen the MOST of Us messages or no messages at all.17

Table 1
Percent of 18-to-24-Year-Old Montanans Who Reported Driving After Last Time Drinking by Main Type of Media Prevention Message Recalled
Most of Us
(Source: Perkins, 2000)

A possible interpretation of this strong correlation between MOST of Us campaign message recognition and lower reported incidence of driving after drinking was that accurate awareness of peer norms acts as a protective factor, encouraging positive behavior and protecting against risky behavior. Without a controlled experimental design, this correlation could not be tested. Nevertheless, this finding signaled that the campaign was likely moving in the right direction, and that the social norms media message could potentially have a significant, positive effect.

The 2000 survey also showed, however, that the campaign message was only being recognized by 40 percent of the target population.17 It was clear that at such low-dose impressions, substantial changes in perceptions of general drinking behavior would take years to accomplish, and might not produce significant enough reductions in high-risk drinking to contribute to the campaign's ultimate goal of reducing driving after drinking. In response, MSNP made two significant changes: First, it decided to target driving after drinking head-on, rather than indirectly through the reduction of alcohol consumption levels. Second, it determined to find the resources to run the campaign media at the concentrated dosage required to bring about behavioral change.

Later that year, the campaign began broadcasting the clear, persistent, and accurate message that most Montana young adults do not drink and drive. The earlier messages focusing on moderate drinking were phased out over the following six months.

According to a third statewide telephone poll of 18-to-24-year-olds, campaign recognition had increased to about half of the statewide target population by the fall of 2001. Given that the message was being disseminated entirely through public service announcements and other free media, this represented an impressive amount of exposure. But overall awareness remained limited, and the campaign needed to achieve greater reach and exposure if it was to support significant behavioral shifts in the driving-after-drinking behavior of young adults.