Social Norms

When asked, students and adults, usually overestimate the percentage of youth who use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.  When students overestimate, they justify use by their peers and are more likely to use themselves.  When adults overestimate the use by youth, they may encourage risky behavior and use by reinforcing inaccurate information through the messages they give young people.

Our goal is to challenge and correct these misperceptions of youth alcohol, tobacco and other drug use through a Social Norms project in Merrill and Tomahawk.  The Social Norms Project uses a theoretical approach and marketing strategies to correct misperceptions of student alcohol & other drug use.


The first step in the Social Norms project is to collect local data from students, parents and staff about youth behaviors and their perceptions of behaviors.   The Merrill surveys have been issued annually in February 2007 through 2012 and in Tomahawk since 2010 through 2012.  Due to lack of funding, no surveys were conducted in 2013.  A shortened version of the student survey at the Tomahawk High and Middle Schools was administered in February every other year since 2014 through the Tomahawk School District with funding from Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital.  Funding was secured from Merrill Area United Way to conduct a shortened version of the student survey at the Merrill High School with 9th– 12th grade students in May 2014 and with additional funding from Ascension Good Samaritan Hospital to all 6th – 12th grade students every other year beginning in May 2016.  All completed surveys are sent to Northern Illinois University where they are analyzed.

A Social Norms subcommittee in each school reviews the data as results are received from Northern Illinois University.  The committee then utilizes the data to develop a Social Norms marketing campaign.  Subsequent surveys included additional questions to determine effectiveness of the media campaign.  The subcommittee reviews the survey data received from Northern Illinois University to evaluate progress, the prior year’s campaign and to develop the marketing campaign for the next school year.


The theory states that individual behavior are influenced by misperceptions of how peers think and act.  For youth in particular, peer influences and perceptions have been found to be more influential in shaping individual choices for behavior than other factors.  The theory states that over estimating problem behaviors discourages healthy behaviors. Correcting these misperceptions by promoting actual norms can result in decreased negative behaviors and increased prevalence of healthy protective behaviors. (Perkins, H. W. & Berkowitz, A. D. (1986) Perceiving the community norms of alcohol use among students; some implications for campus alcohol education programming.  International Journal of the Addictions. 21, 961-976.)

Dr. Wesley Perkins providing a short (9 minute) overview of the social norms approach to health promotion


This type of marketing has been widely used throughout the past several decades in many disciplines as a behavior changing strategy.  Social norms marketing is the adaptation of commercial marketing technologies to programs designed to influence the voluntary behavior of target audiences. (Andreasen, A. R. (1994).  Social marketing: Its definition and domain.  Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. 13(1), 108-115.)  A Social Norms marketing campaign may include posters placed throughout the high school and middle school, information in middle and high school parent newsletters, ads in school event programs, local television ads, billboards throughout the community, social norms message on school computer log-in screens and website access pages, ads at local movie theater, local radio commercials, articles and ads in local newspapers and presentations to various community groups and organizations.

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