This morning I was listening to my favorite music app on my commute into work. I have not splurged for the ad-free version of the app, so after every four or five songs a commercial comes on. Usually, I do not listen too closely to these commercials, but one retailer’s ad caught my attention – in a bad way. The commercial went something like this: Feeling a little rough after a late night out? Pick up some aspirin and Pedialyte to help you feel like new, so you can do it all over again tonight.
Is this really a message we want to send to college students? I can think of many reasons why this commercial is problematic, and I can also think of a lot of products that stores like this sell that college students actually need to help them get settled into their residence hall or apartment and prepare for classes.
We have seen some really positive, healthy trends that show the majority of incoming college students do not drink. Given that less than half of students on most college campuses are heavy drinkers, this ad only resonates with a small group of high-risk students. This commercial was not the best use of the company’s advertising dollars because the message about partying hard does not align with how the majority of students drink: either responsibly or not at all.
Students have now arrived on campus, either for the first time or as returning sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Returning students have joyfully reunited with friends who have parted ways for the summer. Most first-year students are away from home and on their own for the first time, which can be an overwhelming experience. This is a time when they are making new friends and trying to navigate their way through the social webs of the campus community.
As administrators are keenly aware, these first few weeks are also some of the riskiest of the year. AlcoholEdu data has shown that most first-year students arrive at college with healthy attitudes and behaviors around alcohol, but once on campus some students get swept away by “the college effect” and take part in dangerous drinking.
There are many ways we can mitigate “the college effect.” One very direct way that administrators can work to keep healthy students from turning into high-risk alcohol users is to connect these students with each other to create a network. Researchers have documented that two of the most important sociodemographic and psychobehavioral variables that predict whether students abstain is their perception of friends’ alcohol-related attitudes and having a close friend who abstains. This finding suggests that administrators who initiate new programs to help abstainers connect with one another in the first few days after they arrive on campus will be successful.
With this advertising example top of mind, another strategy to create a healthier environment is by restricting marketing and promotion of alcohol. Campus officials have wide latitude to ban or restrict alcohol advertising on campus and to limit the content of party or event announcements. Student support for alcohol advertising policies is actually quite high. Researchers found that 52.1% of students support policies that restrict advertising that promotes alcohol consumption at on-campus parties or events. Campus-based and community officials can work together to eliminate alcohol promotions that offer low-priced drink specials or otherwise promote high-risk drinking.
Broad, comprehensive efforts to deter high-risk drinking must engage a variety of stakeholders and include a range of programs and interventions at the institutional, community, and individual level to address high-risk drinking by changing the environment through multiple channels. This includes being very intentional about the messages we choose to send to our students–and those we discourage–related to alcohol.