Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Underage Drinking Theory Pt. II

I'm probably going to bore a lot of people to death with this, not just because it's probably going to get a little technical, but also because it's a bit theoretical. And besides, this is a blog about beer, so why, Dear God, would I go on about one of the single most one-sided hot-button issues facing the beer industry (or any industry, for that matter) today? Well, partly because I'm a little nuts, and that enables me to believe honestly and without pretense that I have the ability to change things for the better.

You can call me SuperMatt. Ooh, or Mattman!

So I've done a bit of research. As it turns out, there is a theory being practiced at college campuses (campi?) across the country called Social Norms Marketing achieves the same ends as the ones I proposed last week, though it does so by different (and much more clever) means. Essentially, the theory goes something like this: a lot of scare-tactic-centric education programs say things like "25% of college students binge drink." (The standard definition of "binge drinking" is absurd and seemingly highly un-scientific, but that's another fight for another time.) The average college student looks at that and thinks, "Hey, that's one out of every four people on campus. That's a lot of people. Binge drinking must be the socially acceptable thing to do." And just like that, binge drinkers they become.

Of course, the flip side to that statistical coin is that 75% of college students do not binge drink. In theory, if that fact (along with the flip side of many "scary" statistics, like how many kids are not in the early stages of alcoholism, how many have never drank so much they blacked out, how many do not have DUI/OUI/other alcohol-related criminal records, etc.) was publicized, the average college student would look at that and say, "Hey, not as many people drink as I thought. Maybe I'm not socially required to do it." This would ease the imaginary peer pressure that college kids are feeling to drink, help to erase the notion of the "Animal House" college experience.

Two of the big proponents of this method are a gentleman named H. Wesley Perkins, who wrote the book (well, edited it, technically) on Social Norms Marketing, and Dr. David J. Hanson, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at SUNY Potsdam and founder of the blog Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. Both of these educators have seen tremendous success with the program at campuses (really, I think campi is a word) across the country. Oppositions to the theory seem to be largely discredited, though that will require a bit more research on the part of yours truly.

As for me, I like this idea. I think the theory has the potential for success not just on college campuses (campi, I've decided), but also in a larger market. I think PSAs in this vein would find a certain modicum of success, not just among underage drinkers, but among those people of age who belong to a certain social class that seems to tout drunkenness as socially acceptable.

My only hesitation with such a practice would be the association of the theory with a certain anti-alcohol group. What MADD did was admirable: the organization almost single-handedly created a culture in America that said that drunk driving was unacceptable -- indeed that it was more embarassing to drive drunk than it would be to take a cab or assign a designated driver. And it seems to have worked in the particular instance of drunk driving. But having a group like MADD employ a social norms marketing campaign, I think, would not be effective for one simple reason: even if binge drinking is not a social norm for young people, being anti-establishment and counter-culture is. So if I were to create an organization like MADD, and if this organization started putting up flyers with statistics like those mentioned above, and if the organization's message was interpreted as, "Don't drink because you think you have to -- lots of people don't," an anti-establishment response to this would be, "Yeah, well screw you, I'm gonna do it anyway!"

I think instead that these messages have to be published anonymously. Young people can't be anti-establishment if there's no establishment to rebel against. They cannot be counter-culture if there's no single voice dictating what culture should be. Instead, they would be forced to take the information at face value as simple facts about their environment: 75% of college kids don't feel the need to get drunk every weekend. No judgements, no intimations, just facts.

Of course, this addresses the issue of underage drinking, but not quite the way I would have liked. I'm of the opinion that regardless of social norms, kids are still going to drink, especially in the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. The objective, I would think, should be to inform minors that yes, we know you'll drink, but it's possible -- and enjoyable! -- to drink responsibly, and really, all we care about is your safety. Still, I think Social Norms Marketing as a theory is a much better alternative to the "zero-tolerance" and abstinence programs currently being implemented in most institutions that house and/or educate minors.

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