Is the shot glass half-empty or half-full of it? By now you’ve probably noticed the local billboards, print ads and public service announcements around town highlighting how “Most of Us” (or more accurately, most teens) don’t smoke cigarettes or drink and drive. According to Montana’s official teen bean counters in Helena, seven out of ten teenagers don’t use tobacco (either the smoldering or drooling variety), and four out of five teens don’t drink and drive. Likewise, a similar public health campaign run through the University of Montana’s Curry Health Center emphasizes the fact that “61 percent of students drink 0 to 5 drinks when they party.”
Now, it doesn’t take a mathematician of John Nash-caliber (you know, the Nobel prize winner in A Beautiful Mind) to crunch the numbers and see that those stats can also be interpreted to mean: a) three out of ten teens use tobacco; b) One in five teenagers behind the wheel is loaded; and c) nearly two out of five UM students are routinely hammering back six or more drinks at a rate experts call “binge drinking.” Not exactly the kind of factoids that instill us with that warm and fuzzy feeling inside, especially late on a Saturday night.
Still, before you bust out your old self-righteousness stick looking for someone to whack, there’s more to this strategy than looking at the glass as half-full…or so we’re told.
“The reason that we do it the way that we do is that for a long time prevention efforts and education efforts have concentrated on the 39 percent, talking about those who do the high-risk drinking. As such, students have this perception that everyone drinks that way,” says Sarah Mart, director of health enhancement at the Curry Health Center. “That is why we choose to put out the message that says, ‘Hey, actually 61 percent drink 0 to 5,’ which most of the time is more than most students would guess.”
As Mart notes, historically most public health campaigns have emphasized the shocking numbers as a scare tactic to reinforce the fears associated with excessive alcohol consumption, tobacco and drug use, sexual promiscuity and various other mortal sins. However, over the years researchers have also discovered that “accentuating the negative” also has the undesired effect of further exaggerating the myths about what we all consider normal behavior. According to this theory of “social norms marketing,” parents were not only under the false impression that all their teens’ friends were plowing down lines of coke at traffic lights and then tearing off to copulate like bunnies, but the teens themselves began to believe that excess was normal behavior. Thus, those misperceived norms led to exaggerated behavior—exactly what the public health campaigns were trying to reverse.
So, how effective is social norms marketing? Well, according to the Montana Social Norms Project, (home of the “Most of Us” campaign) binge drinking at several midwestern colleges was reduced by 18 to 21 percent over a two-year period, and resulted in fewer accidents and violent altercations on campuses.
It’s not like we’re ignoring the bad behavior,” says Mart. “But at the same time it’s like, let’s emphasize the good that is currently going on.”
Still, not everyone is 100 percent sold on the “Most of Us” motto. As one public health official admitted privately, “UM students don’t respond to it that well. They say the slogan’s kinda dorky.” Most of them, anyway.