Social Marketing and Consumer Behavior: Influencing the Decision to Reduce Alcohol Consumption

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this study was to use a marketing approach to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse on a college campus. A survey collected data pertaining to the process students would go through in the decision to reduce their alcohol intake. We segmented the students on the basis of their drinking and abuse levels, and used the results to formulate product, pricing, promotion and distribution strategies. We conclude that there are challenges to be overcome when applying a marketing approach, particularly in the area of product development.


Jean C. Darian (1993) ,"Social Marketing and Consumer Behavior: Influencing the Decision to Reduce Alcohol Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 413-418.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 413-418


Jean C. Darian, Rider College


The purpose of this study was to use a marketing approach to deal with the problem of alcohol abuse on a college campus. A survey collected data pertaining to the process students would go through in the decision to reduce their alcohol intake. We segmented the students on the basis of their drinking and abuse levels, and used the results to formulate product, pricing, promotion and distribution strategies. We conclude that there are challenges to be overcome when applying a marketing approach, particularly in the area of product development.


There has been some dispute about the concept of social marketing since Kotler and Zaltman (1971) introduced the idea two decades ago, including a questioning of the appropriateness of broadening the marketing discipline to include social marketing (Luck 1974). Whyte (1985) however, holds that "once the idea of intangible products and non-monetary prices is accepted, then the marketing paradigm is valid for the whole domain of marketing". This paper discusses the results of a survey conducted in 1990 to help choose effective marketing strategies to reduce alcohol abuse at a northeastern college, a case where the product is intangible and the price is primarily non-monetary. We will discuss the advantages of a marketing approach as well as some difficulties encountered in applying this approach.

According to Kotler and Roberto (1989), included among the goals of social marketing is bringing about a change from an adverse behavior. This is the goal of the college administration in the area of the alcohol-related behavior of students. The overall objective of the college administration is to eliminate alcohol abuse and its undesirable consequences, while maintaining responsible drinking. This objective recognizes some of the broader objectives of the college as a whole, which include providing a conducive learning environment for students, and projecting a positive image to students, their parents, and the public at large. Any strategies employed to reduce alcohol abuse should aim to do this without threatening the college's overall objective. For example, effectively eliminating alcohol abuse on campus but shifting it to off-campus locations would harm the college's image.

In investigating strategies for reducing alcohol abuse at the college, we considered the following areas. 1. Segmentation of the student population on the basis of alcohol related behaviors. 2. Product substitutes. Our exploration of this was limited as we did not know prior to conducting the surveywhat combination of wants alcohol consumption was satisfying for abusive drinkers. We chose several nonalcoholic recreational activities as direct substitutes, and reduced stress and personal problem resolution as indirect substitutes. 3. The "price" of abusive drinking and of substitutes. As previous scholars have noted (Bloom 1980, Kotler and Roberto 1989), the price of a behavior includes psychic, energy, and time costs as well as monetary. Our survey has investigated costs and benefits of drinking and of reducing drinking as perceived by the students. We view stricter college alcohol policies as increasing the price (cost) of abusive drinking. 4. Promotion, including what type of information and education would be effective in persuading abusive drinkers to change their behavior. 5. Distribution, where we place alcohol counseling and peer counseling because they provide access to product substitutes, and so are analagous to service retailers.

These marketing strategies can affect students at various stages of the consumer decision-making process, and as DePaulo et. al. (1986) noted, they may have different effects at each stage.


The sample

The survey instrument involves a questionnaire with 142 structured questions and one open-ended question. The questionnaire was pretested and revised twice before being administered to the final sample. We used a systematic, stratified cluster sample, with a dormitory room as the sampling unit. The drop-off method was used to distribute 841 questionnaires, and 459 were completed and returned, a response rate of 54.6%. The remaining questionnaires were either not received (not-at-homes, outright refusals, or prolonged delays), or filled out incorrectly. The final, usable, number of responses was 388, about 20% of the college resident population. 60% of the sample are females, indicating a higher female response rate, but the sample is representative of class standing. 61 percent are under 21 years.


We analyze the total sample at various stages of the consumer decision-making process using frequency distributions of responses. In addition, we have segmented the respondents on the basis of their drinking behavior and its negative consequences. Students were asked how many drinks they typically had on each day of the week, how many times they had drunk alone, with a group, and at specified locations. They were also asked how many times in the past three months they had (specified) negative or undesirable experiences as a result of drinking. The sample was segmented on the basis of these behavioral variables using principal components and cluster analysis (average linkage between groups). Principal components analysis was used to reduce the 25 behavioral variables to a few linear combinations. With a minimum eigenvalue of 2.0, this analysis yielded two factors. The first factor reflected the quantity of drinking, and the second the amount of abuse , i.e. the number and frequency of negative consequences resulting from drinking. Respondents were clustered on the component scores of the two factors. After aggregating clusters with very small populations, the drinking population formed four segments (four cases were unclassified due to incomplete information). The nondrinkers form a fifth segment. A description of the segments is given below:

N       Segment Name                     Description

40      Nondrinkers                         Never drink alcohol

139    Responsible drinkers            Light drinkers, low abuse

140    Teflon drinkers                     Heavy drinkers, low abuse

52      Hazardous drinkers              Heavy drinkers, high abuse

13      Troubled drinkers                 Light drinkers, high abuse

All segment names have been coined by the author. The four drinking segments have a similar range of scores on the drinking factor, but the hazardous segment has a wider range on the abuse factor than the other three groups. Although the troubled drinkers' segment is very small, it is included in the analysis as it exhibits some intriguing patterns.


The college has no desire to change the behavior of the nondrinkers and responsible drinkers, but would clearly like to affect the behavior of the hazardous and troubled drinkers. The position of the teflon drinkers is less clear. A survey conducted at another college by Matross (1982) found that students do not view this type of drinker as a problem drinkers. In addition, their low abuse level suggests they are not an immediate problem for the administration. However, their high level of alcohol consumption clearly puts them at risk.

For variables using rating scales, we used analysis of variance to test for the significance of differences between segments. The least squares difference test was used to test for significant differences between each pair of segments. For nominally-scaled variables, we used chi-square analysis. Throughout the paper, any differences between segments that are mentioned in the text are significant at the .05% level.


Our sample is drawn from a specialized segment of the total United States drinking population; resident undergraduate students in a small college. Hence the respondents differ from the general U.S. drinking population in demographic and lifestyle characteristics, and in their social environment. As we will discuss, this leads to a distinctive drinking environment which suggests different strategies from the general population.

Drinking Behavior and Consequences

Drinking at the college is widespread. Over half (52 percent) of students who drink said they typically had five or more servings at least one day per week. This high drinking level is consistent with that found in other studies of campus drinking (Harford 1983, Kraft, 1985; Smith, 1989; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989). There are no significant differences in drinking levels by age, in spite of the fact that drinking on campus is illegal for students under 21. There are large variations in drinking levels by day of the week, with a concentration of drinking on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The percent of drinking respondents who reported experiencing the following negative consequences of drinking at least once during the past three months are as follows:

80%    Getting drunk

42%    Cutting classes or poor performance on examinations

32%    Conflict with a close friend or a girl/boy friend

23%    Thinking should cut down on or stop drinking

27%    Having a fight with someone

25%    Driving a car after having several drinks

19%    Having sex without birth control

12%    Damaging property or pulling a fire alarm

9%     Having trouble with the school administration

Social Environment at the College

Studies of drinking on campus have found that the social environment at colleges is a major contributor to drinking problems, especially when drinking becomes a primary social activity (Gonzalez, 1988; Kraft, 1985). Our research is consistent with other studies (Harford, 1983) in showing that drinking at the college is mainly a social activity. Only 5% of respondents had drunk alone three or more times in the previous month. However, only 14 percent of respondents said peer pressure was an important reason for their drinking, and only 24 percent that drinking because their friends drink is important. Also, 92% indicated that it was okay to turn down an alcoholic drink at the college. Peer pressure implies resistance. These responses suggest that respondents happily comply with social influences.

The social nature of drinking on the campus presents both opportunities and threats to the administration. On the negative side, a campus culture conducive to widespread social drinking encourages a lot of drinking with the concomitant risk of abuse, and provides an umbrella for highly abusive drinkers to function inconspicuously. On the positive side, there is a potential to change the drinking behavior of the most abusive or potentially abusive students by altering the campus culture.

A change in the campus culture could be brought about through substitute activities, stricter policies, provision of services, and effective information and promotion. Each of these will be discussed later in the paper. Before doing this, however, we will address the issue of intervention more generally. Kraft (1985) pointed out that intervention can take place at least three levels: 1. at the level of the individual student and his/her knowledge, attitudes and behavior, 2. among primary affiliative groups of students and their norms and behavior, 3. at the institutional level. We should note that institutional controls are more effective if they stimulate or reinforce informal social controls (Moskowitz 1989). Therefore an appropriate strategy for reducing abuse is to improve informal controls by changing the campus culture. The diagram in Figure 1 indicates that proposed programs and policies should be evaluated not only on the basis of their direct impact on the individual student, but also on the indirect effect, via an impact on the social environment.

With the above approach the college can develop a long run strategy aimed at nonabusers as well as abusers. This approach has the advantage of mitigating two problems encountered in social marketing that were noted by Bloom (1980). First, Bloom pointed out that, in contrast to the usual situation in commercial marketing, target segments in social marketing must often consist of those consumers who are the most negatively predisposed to the marketers offerings. Secondly, he noted that agencies often have difficulty implementing long-term positioning strategies.


Attitudes and Beliefs

The general picture that emerges is that students hold an accepting attitude toward drunkenness. As shown below:

Percent Saying That Is Is Okay To Get Drunk If It Doesn't Interfere With Responsibilities

Nondrinkers                 33%

Responsible drinkers   49%

Teflon drinkers             80%

Hazardous drinkers     68%

Troubled drinkers       31%

Total sample                61%

The most accepting attitude is held by the teflon drinkers.In general, students' perceptions of their own drinking vastly understate their actual drinking. Only 7% say they get drunk and yet,in response to a later question, 20% admit to getting drunk six or more times during the last three months. This disparity appears to reflect the phenomenon of denial. However, this denial is not complete, since the hazardous drinkers are more likely than others to say they frequently get drunk (32 percent, compared to less than 7 percent for each of the other segments).


Surveys on other college campuses found that knowledge of alcohol facts is not enough to deter students from abusing alcohol (Gonzales, 1988; Kraft, 1985; Moskowitz, 1989). However, although information, per se, is not enough, Moskowitz (1989) suggests that information and education are probably valuable as reinforcers of other methods, e.g., policies, and of existing positive attitudes. Responses to the question shown below point to the need for clear presentation of relevant information.

Consumption Of Grain Alcohol Is More Likely To Lead To Alcohol Abuse Than Beer Or Wine

                                    Yes         No         Don't Know

Nondrinkers                  40%        30%       30%

Responsible drinkers    31%         41%       29%

Teflon drinkers              30%         42%       27%

Hazardous drinkers      28%         40%       32%

Toubled drinkers          36%         64%         0%

Total                             31%         41%       28%

Just one week before this survey was conducted, all students received a memorandum from the Alcohol Abuse Task Force, which clearly stated that grain alcohol in all forms would be prohibited because it is more likely to lead to abuse than wine or beer. Student responses to this survey question suggest that the majority had not carefully read this memorandum. Survey results do show that students are aware of the policies that are strictly enforced on campus.For example, they know that drinking is not permitted in the resident hallways. However, 82% did not know that under current policy alcohol cannot be consumed in the dorm rooms by students under 21 years old. For policies to be effective, students must be fully aware of them. We should also note that, in order to communicate policies clearly to students, alcohol policy-makers must have a very clear idea of how close surveillance will be,and how strictly policies will be enforced.


What stimuli might move the student to the problem recognition stage in the decision to reduce alcohol consumption ? We should note that most students have probably considered reducing their alcohol consumption many times. We did, however, ask questions that are relevant to this stage in the decision-making process. Results (for all drinkers) are shown below.

Percent Agreeing That The Following Event Might Make Them Consider Drinking Less

61%    A friend of mine has serious problems with alcohol

47%    A student at my college is killed in an auto accident when driving under the influence of alcohol

42%     I have a bad hangover

31%    A mass media news story that a student at a U.S. college died from heavy drinking at a fraternity              party

21%    I receive information about the negative consequences of drinking from a fraternity/sorority              educational program

These results show that a mass media story of a student alcohol-related death has less impact than a bad hangover. The most important influence is personal involvement with a friend who has a serious alcohol problem. These results suggest it is necessary to emphasize personal susceptibility, although this could be for a friend, not necessarily oneself. With the exception of the hangover, hazardous drinkers were the least likely to be influencing by any of these stimuli.


Responses to questions asking for the reasons why students were already controlling their drinking are as follows:

Percent Saying The Following Reasons For Controlling Their Intake Of Alcohol Are Important

77%    Could hurt my academic performance

74%    I prefer other activities

73%    Could be bad for my health in the long run

72%    Makes me ill

63%    Could get into trouble with the police

62%    Can't afford it

62%    Could have negative social/work consequences in the long run

51%    Could get into trouble with the college administration

33%    Friends disapprove

With the exception of a preference for other activities, the factors that have led to problem recognition for students fall under the rubric of price (including nonmonetary). The three most important of these relate to academic performance and health effects. These negative consequences of drinking could be emphasized in campus-wide promotions. The majority of students mention financial costs as a constraint. Stricter policies or stricter enforcement would also seem to be a promising approach, but some problems with this will addressed later. The least important factor is disapproval of friends, reflecting the current social environment of the campus. In general, the teflon, hazardous, and troubled drinkers consider these factors less important than do the other two segments. In particular, they are less likely to say that preferring other activities is an important reason for controlling their alcohol intake.


Preferences for different sources are shown below:

Percent Who Would Use The Following Sources If They Wanted To Reduce Their Drinking

59%    Friends or other students

34%    The college counselor

30%    Counselor off-campus

27%    Don't know what would do

26%    Hall coordinator, resident advisor, or house manager

23%    Library

The most popular source is peers. This suggests that peer counselors and a change in the campus culture would be effective strategies. More effective promotion of counseling services might increase the number considering counseling and reduce the number who don't know what they would do. The small percentage choosing resident personnel may be due to the dual role of these employees, i.e. informal counselor and policy enforcer.


Evaluative Criteria

The costs and benefits of drinking as perceived by students provide an indication of the evaluative criteria they will use when considering alternatives. We have already discussed costs when looking at problem recognition. The figures below show some benefits that are important to students.

Percent Saying The Following Were Important Reasons For Drinking

89%    To celebrate special occasions

54%    To help me relax

50%    To add excitement to my life

41%    To cheer me up when I'm in a bad mood

38%    To escape the pressures of life

38%    To get high

34%    To overcome shyness

30%    Because there is nothing else better to do

24%    Because people I know drink

19%    So that I won't feel left out

14%    Because it makes sex more pleasurable

14%    Because of pressure from others

The troubled drinkers were the most likely to drink so they wouldn't feel left out, but less likely than the hazardous drinkers to drink because they were in a bad mood or for excitement. The hazardous and troubled drinkers were more likely than the other segments to drink for all the other reasons. Wiggins (1987) has noted that problem drinkers are most likely to drink for mood-altering reasons such as to relax or escape the pressures of life. The hazardous drinkers clearly fall into this category, but the troubled drinkers are somewhat mixed. The teflon drinkers are more likely than the responsible drinkers to drink for excitement, to get high, to cheer up and because there is nothing better to do. However, they are not more likely to drink to relax, to overcome shyness or to escape pressure.

Substitute Activities

Substitute social activities on the campus could potentially provide most of these benefits. We asked whether students would go to non-alcoholic events that we believed would be close substitutes for drinking, e.g., dance nights, major sports events nights. The interest expressed was fairly high overall; five of the six activities had a level of preference over 70%. However, 58 percent of the respondents said they would still drink on the evening of the non-alcoholic event, and a higher proportion of hazardous drinkers reported this than other drinkers. One would hope that the level of drinking would be lower, as the emphasis on drinking would decrease.


Counseling can potentially provide some of the benefits sought by students through drinking, either directly, e.g., by helping students to relax, or indirectly, e.g., by reducing the need to get high. We investigated student preference for specific forms of counseling they would like if they wanted to reduce the amount of their drinking. Results are shown below.

Percent Agreeing That They Would Like The Following Types Of Help To Reduce Their Drinking

60%    Specific suggestions on how to consume less alcohol at social occasions

41%    Counseling to help deal with personal problems

38%    Stress management training

28%    Training in refusal skills

The highest levels of interest were shown by the responsible and troubled drinkers. Teflon and hazardous drinkers showed less interest in general. However, the teflon drinkers were as interested as others in specifice suggestions, and the hazardous drinkers were just as interested in personal counseling. Most students said they would prefer one-on-one counseling with someone who has had a prior alcohol problem, either a peer or a professional. Students' general perception is that people benefit from counseling only if they go voluntarily.

In response to these needs and interests, the college could provide skill-related programs and promote the benefits of counseling more effectively. Time and place convenience could be provided by having college counselors come to the dormitories to speak about what they do, what services are offered at the Counseling Center, and how these services help students. In this setting, the counselor would have the opportunity to make contact with students who would not go to the counseling center on their own. In addition, if forced counseling remains in place, the counselor should provide convincing evidence that students who have been forced to get alcohol counseling have benefitted. Finally, to increase source credibility, informal advisors with prior alcohol problems should be available to meet with students.

We also see several advantages to using peers for giving support to students with alcohol problems. Students know the relevant issues surrounding alcohol among their peers, the abuse potential of planned activities, and understand the stresses experienced by their peers.In addition, students are aware of peers with problems, many of which are shut off to staff and faculty. Finally, a peer program would create greater student involvement and awareness, and would help to alter the social environment. Survey responses indicate that there is adequate interest on the campus for peer support programs, although females are far more interested than males. The majority of interested students said they could be available 2-4 hours per week, and only 15 percent said they would need financial support. As students have a preference for peers as information sources, peer volunteers could prove to be very effective intermediaries.

College Alcohol Policies

Finally, we examined the role of college alcohol policies as a way of increasing the cost of alcohol abuse. Students reacted negatively when asked questions about changes in their drinking behavior if stricter policies were implemented. 74% of those aged 21+ indicated that they would drink more off campus if stricter policies were implemented. Only 21% of all respondents indicated they would drink less under a stricter policy, and 41% of all respondents said that students would vent their problems in ways other than drinking given a stricter policy. These responses suggest that if policies are too strict, not only might this be bad for student-administration relationships but also students may drink more off campus. On the other hand, if policies are too lenient, this could permit more abuse which would be bad for the college's image and aggravating to responsible/non drinking students. Probably the best course of action for the college would be to monitor the policies of other colleges, and plan a carefully sequenced phasing in of progressively stricter policies.


Our analysis has outlined some ways in which marketing strategies can be used at various stages of the decision-making process to influence the decision to consume less alcohol. On the basis of our findings, we suggest a two-pronged targeting approach. First, students who abuse alcohol need to be targeted directly. Both the troubledand hazardous groups are more likely than others to say they need help to control their drinking, indicating they are at least at the problem recognition stage of the decision-making process leading to reduced alcohol consumption. In addition, both abusing segments are more likely to have social difficulties and to experience interpersonal conflict as a result of their drinking. The troubled drinkers are the least happy of all segments with their current drinking behavior. They are more likely than either the hazardous or teflon drinkers to say they would like help with refusal skills, and to favor stricter college alcohol policies. Interestingly, the troubled drinkers reported having the strictest parents with respect to their drinking of all the segments, and none of the troubled drinkers reported that either parent drank frequently. This family background may partly account for the troubled drinkers feeling of dissonance about their drinking behavior. By contrast, the hazardous drinkers reported having parents who drank more frequently than those of other segments, and who were the most lenient about their child's drinking. This segment has the highest frequency of drunken driving, and, together with the teflon drinkers, is most likely to be against stricter alcohol policies. This segment contains the highest proportion of males, and exhibits some "macho" attitudes, e.g., a low interest in learning refusal skills. Lastovicka et. al.(1987) suggest that promotion targeted at this group should focus on such appeals as "a "real man's" control of himself is threatened by drinking".

The second thrust of targeting would aim at the entire campus with the goal of producing a social environment that is less conducive to drinking. Our findings suggest that initially the responsible drinkers would be most responsive to alternative social activities. However, the campus is small, and different segments frequently mix together socially because of shared residence and academic majors. In addition, a peer counseling program, and better communication between counselors and students would also promote a change in the social environment. One area where marketing can potentially make an important contribution to reducing adverse social behaviors is that of product development. The marketing approach involves substituting a product of greater perceived value to the targeted consumer than their current product. This approach has an advantage over the more traditional way of dealing with social problems which focuses chiefly on eliminating or reducing the undesirable behavior. This is an area that should be investigated further in future surveys. Unfortunately, this is not an easy undertaking as many of the substitutes are either extremely intangible, e.g., higher self esteem, or provide only long-term benefits.

Our survey results indicate that monetary prices are one evaluative criterion influencing students' drinking levels. Alternate activities should be provided at a lower cost than an evening's drinking, and skills training and counseling should be provided free of charge. Nonmonetary costs of abusive drinking can be increased by having stricter policy rules and enforcement, and by having a social environment where peers show less tolerance of abuse. The nonmonetary costs of counseling can be reduced through more effective distribution, e.g., by having the counselors visit the students' residences.

More generally, the distribution function should be to have nonalcoholic social activities, skills training session and counseling available at convenient and appropriate times and places. The best nights to hold the social activities would be on the heavy drinking days of Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and during times of the year when the frequency of alcohol abuse is high (e.g. at the beginning of the semester).

Finally, promotion must include much more than alcohol facts. Promotion of the costs of abuse should emphasize personal susceptibility. Promotion of substitutes must clearly communicate benefits. Active involvement of student peers in the promotion effort will greatly increase its reach and credibility.


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Jean C. Darian, Rider College


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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