CORVALLIS - Oregon State University is joining 32 other schools in an experiment that will test the effectiveness of social norms marketing in reducing high-risk drinking among college students.

The "Just the Facts" campaign is anchored with a series of advertisements in the OSU student newspaper, The Daily Barometer. The ads let students know that "74 percent of OSU students have 0-4 drinks per week," a figure confirmed by a spring 2000 survey of OSU students.

The message is targeted at correcting students' often-erroneous perceptions of social norms about drinking, said Cheryl Graham, health educator with OSU Student Health Services.

Unfortunately, some widely accepted social norms are false and can lead to inappropriate behavior, Graham said. For example, 75 percent of OSU students mistakenly believe the average number of drinks consumed each week by students on campus is 13, the OSU health educator pointed out.

"People's perception of the norm can greatly influence their behavior," Graham said. "Social marketing theory says that people want to be normal and behave like the rest of their peers. The 'Just the Facts' message focuses on positive behavior that is the norm among students."

By correcting misperceptions about the frequency of student drinking, educators believe risky alcohol use can be reduced among students.

"This is a fantastic opportunity," Graham said. In addition to the 16 schools conducting an experimental social norms marketing campaign, 16 other campuses will act as controls with no social norms campaigns on campus. The three-year, "Just the Facts" campaign was developed by Atlanta-based Golden Key International Honorary. Data will be analyzed to confirm if social norms campaigns correct students' perceptions of their peers' drinking behavior, and whether those corrected perceptions lead to reduced rates of high-risk drinking.

Entering freshmen are the primary target for the first phase of the study, which started this fall. In addition to the newspaper ads, the message was also included in some campus orientation presentations and on free items handed out to students, as well as addressed in freshmen orientation classes.

Follow-up reinforcements will reward students who can recite the message or answer a question about the theme. Later in the year, the campaign will enter a second phase that will include photos on posters or flyers throughout campus.

"This winter, we will combine the message with a series of pictures of students doing something fun and enjoying each other's company. The goal of a social norms marketing campaign is to increase positive behavior by focusing on the positive behavior that already exists."

Before any messages are used on campus, they are evaluated for student acceptance and believability.

For example, during the summer, three variations of the message used in this fall's campaign were tested through on-the-street random interviews with undergraduate OSU students, Graham said. Preliminary data from campuses that have employed social norms messages have indicated decreases of as much as 20 percent in high-risk drinking.

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Cheryl Graham, 541-737-2775