Social norm marketing in government

One technique many advertising campaigns utilize is called social norm marketing. At its simplest, it is convincing people to do something that all of their friends are doing. Use this product, and you will fit in. Wear this brand of clothing, and you will be cool. Eat Mentos, etc., ad infinitum.

There are several government initiatives that could benefit from this technique. The completely and miserably failed “war on drugs” has, as one component, television advertising. Instead of giving meanginful statistics about drug use, potential effects, and the like, we get commercials that tell us that smoking pot funds terrorism and shooting up is the equivalent of turning your brain into a fried egg. Yeah, real effective, guys.

The same tactics can be used for underage smoking and drinking — the number of people who do it is far less then the number of people we think are doing it. Same with sex, for that matter. What made me think of this originally is that I was watching Scrubs and after an, um, encounter, J.D. added a mark to his chart. He had finally reached 5. His friend Turk, the “cool” one, at one point makes a comment to his fiancé about her being his third. These seem like reasonable numbers to me for a 25 year old shortly out of college and medical school. Some people have had more action, some less. But other programs would have you believe that you can’t be cool and graduate college without having slept with at least a dozen people. And that’s just icky.

I’d bet for some people watching Scrubs, those few casual references made a difference. Made them worry just a bit less about sleeping around. And the same tactics could convince people to drink less, smoke less, and use fewer illegal substances. Of course, you’re not going to get the hardcore users in any of these groups, who you are targeting are the people who don’t necessarily have the compulsion to do this sort of thing, but are feeling pressured by the imaginary society that is being fed to them.

So US government, get a clue. If you’re going to spend so much of our tax money on these silly advertisements, at least give us something that might actually work.

2 replies on “Social norm marketing in government”

  1. I would also suggest that print, television, and radio media may not be the best avenues through which one could reach the populations the U.S. government is hoping to persuade away from illicit activity.

    (That’s accepting the osetnsible existence of a desire on the part of a collective actor government to want people to stop smoking illegally, doing drugs, and having sex.)

    The best locale to target students may be through the institutions at which they are studying (either high schools or college) and through the products they already buy.

    Why not have Coca-cola cans that contain information on safe sex, iPods boxes with anti-drug information, etc.? It would be a great way for government to pair up with the commercial folks who sell the massive student-driven market everything it buys.

  2. For those interested in this kind of thing, you may wish to look into the concept of the “opinion leader”. It’s the one thing I remember from SOC 146a (Mass Communication Theory), an upper-level course I randomly decided to take first semester of my freshman year 🙂

    Basically it talks about how certain people are more influential in a community and can “lead” other peoples’ “opinions” (what a wonderfully original name!). For example, if everyone knows that I’m computer savvy, they may ask for me advice when purchasing a computer. This example is more concrete than a lot of the theory deals with, which has to do with subconscious decisions about who opinion leaders are, and how to target them in advertising so that they spread the word…

Comments are closed.