Prevention Corner: Social Marketing Campaigns

Aug 22nd, 1970

By Caren Holmes MCASA Program Intern

Colleges around the country are seeking creative and effective prevention methods to address the widespread issue of sexual violence on campuses. While few campaigns or programs have been thoroughly evaluated to prove effective in reducing the occurrence of sexual violence, there exists an abundance of knowledge about methods thought to be successful by prevention strategists around the world. One such approach, modeled on the success of campaigns initiated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), is the use of social marketing campaigns to shape social norms around sexual violence. [1]  Sharing these ideas can help to direct prevention efforts on college campuses around the country.  

Social Marketing Campaigns:

Social marketing campaigns are designed to change the long-term behavior of a target audience. Social marketing is founded on the idea that marketing techniques can be used not only to sell goods and services but to promote ideas, attitudes and behaviors. Social marketing campaigns operate within “Four Ps.” [2] The first P is the (1) product which is not necessarily a physical object but a service, practice or idea. In order to sell or promote the product, individuals must believe that there is a problem and that the product is a part of the solution. Within sexual assault prevention, the product might be consent or bystander intervention. The second P is (2) price. The price may not be a monetary cost of a product but rather an intangible social or emotional cost. Consuming a product may cost time or risk social disproval from others. For this reason, the product must be marketed as being worth the price. For sexual assault campaigns this could mean emphasizing the cost of not intervening by promoting testimonials from survivors. The third P is (3) place which refers to the way in which a product is distributed. This includes considering dissemination of information and accessibility. For sexual violence social marketing campaigns this may mean posters, trainings, social media, etc. The fourth P is (4) promotion which refers to promoting and sustaining a demand for the product itself. For sexual violence programing this may refer to awareness campaigns. Social marketing campaigns must thoroughly understand their target audiences. It is important that messages be designed to address the specific needs of particular populations. To provide a few examples, “Consent is so frat” is an organization marketing the importance of consent to members of Greek Life, “Men can stop rape” is a campaign designed to engage men on issues of sexual violence understanding their role in prevention efforts. Several programs have been designed specifically for student athletes to address the rates of sexual assault perpetration by collegiate athletes. Each of these campaigns are designed to market specifically to their target audience engaging those with substantial social influence in their communities.  


College campus social marketing campaigns should aim to:

  • Use intentional language in messaging, pretested to avoid misuse
  • Measure the effectiveness of their campaign strategies by testing pre and post exposure attitudes and rates of sexual violence.
  • Incorporate positive messaging campaigns that seek to “call in” rather than “call out”
  • Promote the benefits of buying into ideas that curb rape culture
  • Ensure that promotional and educational material is in line with the needs of the target audience
  • Pursue messaging that initiates on-going conversation
  • Employ long-term comprehensive educational programing as opposed to one-session interventions
  • Incorporate individual, peer/partner, organization and community level engagement
  • Reach out to and direct material promoting social change to socially influential individuals
  • Encourage reporting; promote positive relationships with existing reporting avenues
  • Utilize trained peer educators when professionals are unavailable
  • Incorporate prevention efforts aimed at both bystanders and perpetrators to prevent persistence of victim blaming culture
  • Provide tangible activities in which individuals can get involved; social media campaigns, storytelling, etc.
  • Be ongoing; sexual assault prevention should be year round rather than isolated in sexual assault awareness month
  • Connect with local resources such as rape crisis centers or other universities
  • Deter perpetrators through promoting awareness of consequences and building capacity to choose alternatives to violence
  • Employ multifaceted campaign strategies ie. use many of these suggestions rather than just one

    Bystander Intervention: Many social marketing campaigns include bystander intervention strategies and trainings. They work to sell a sense of responsibility to both male and female students who might otherwise feel distant from the problem of sexual assault on their campuses. These campaigns employ intentional messaging and educational programing to ensure that students engage in bystander intervention. Students must be empowered with tools with which to intervene in seemingly risky situations.   College/ University Prevention Campaigns: The “It’s on us” campaign was initiated by President Obama in 2014 to address sexual assault rates on college campuses around the country. While it has largely been described as an awareness campaign, its branding seeks to initiate a preventative call to action. Its target audience is both men and women on college campuses. The campaign involves online informational videos and an online pledge that devotes students to intervention and awareness. Colleges have adapted and incorporated the branding of the “It’s on us” campaign, personalizing the logo and the messages to their individual campuses. While this is a massive campaign, its target audience is perhaps overly saturated resulting in limited capacity building and concrete prevention. Regardless, the campaign has been instrumental in disseminating wide spread awareness of college sexual assault and has sparked “It’s on us” programs in over 230 schools around the country.

  The University of Wisconsin-Madison has initiated the “Don’t be that guy” campaign. Their promotion materials feature bluntly worded posters such as “drinking too much doesn’t give you the permission to rape someone.” The campaign is designed to target potential perpetrators. It also attempts to bring awareness to individuals using alcohol as a weapon in order to commit sexual assault. It is designed to change the culture of social acceptance of those who commit sexual assault. The website of this campaign includes basic bystander intervention strategies and additional resources for those interested in attaining more information. However, this hard-hitting poster campaign lacks comprehensive multifaceted dissemination of information.

  The “Consent is Sexy” campaign is a comprehensive awareness and prevention campaign that looks to spread consent culture on college campuses. The campaign is comprehensive as it includes trainings and workshops, informative promotional material, interactive events and an impact assessment report to gage the effectiveness of the campaign strategies. Colleges around the country are using the programing developed by Consent is Sexy to initiate their own social marketing campaigns. 80% of students pulled post exposure, agreed that the campaign initiated dialogue about consent on their campus/ with their friends. The organization offers workshops for student leaders to ensure they have the necessary information to successfully employ the campaign, customizing it for their college campus. This campaign has been criticized for romanticizing consent rather than presenting it as a mandatory aspect of sex. However, using the term “sexy” is a marketing tactic designed to make consent culture more enticing.

  “Take Back the Night” is a campaign used in communities and on college campuses all over the country. It is designed to foster solidarity within campus communities to support survivors. It is also the objective of the campaign to provide survivors with a platform from which to speak about their experiences. The campaign looks to empower both survivors and allies to break the culture of silence towards issues of sexual assault promoting in its place, solidarity and support. It helps allies understand the severity of sexual assault through testimonials. It functions as a showcase of support for survivors which encourages others who might be tentative to support a movement to engage with prevention efforts.

  “Carry that Weight” is a student initiated campaign that began on the Columbia University campus. While the initial protest was brought on by a single student seeking repercussions for her rapist living on the campus, it grew into a larger, national campaign. The messaging held a simple call to action, demanding that college communities work to support survivors of sexual assault so that they are not forced to “carry that weight” alone. The campaign was promoted in a unique way as individuals around the country began carrying mattresses around their campuses. This was a way to physically represent the psychological and emotional burdens felt by victims of rape. The campaign was promoted through social media forums creating networks of solidarity and support on campuses around the country.

  “Not on MY Campus” is an initiative at the University of Texas aimed at involving more students in their preventative and awareness efforts. The initiative which is largely organized by students, looks to sell the idea that UT students should take responsibility for their shared campus culture individually and collectively. The campaign involves aspects of both awareness and prevention demanding that students recognize the many facets of rape culture and their role in addressing it. The campaign is attempting to utilize positive messaging by providing a space to promote alternatives to sexual violence. The campaign encourages individuals to take a pledge and promotes its messages on a variety of social media forums linking interested students to additional resources and information. It involves little social risk for students who choose to get involved over a Facebook post or through attending a workshop.

  The Clothesline Project is an awareness initiative which is being used on campuses across the nation. The project was created with the objective of taking “mind-numbing” statistics and turn them into “in your face” visual representations that more meaningfully convey the severity of the issue of sexual violence. The project provides a forum for education and healing as individuals are encouraged to write their testimonials on t-shirts to be publically displayed. Many schools have turned this awareness campaign into a forum for prevention efforts using the shirts as a way initiate conversations about sexual violence on their campuses.

  Three male students at Colby College started an organization called “Male Athletes Against Violence” which aimed to challenge stereotypes about athletes and masculinity in turn challenging rape culture. The group later evolved into “Mules Against Violence” (Mule is their school mascot) which incorporated women into the organization. While the organization has expanded to include women, they continue to hold workshops to designed specifically to engage men in conversations about masculinity. The workshops encourage participants to define expected behaviors of “real men”, working to challenge stereotypes and understand how masculinity plays a role in perpetrating violence against women. This workshop looks to sell alternative ideas about masculinity with perhaps a high social risk for those who deviate from cultural norms. However, the program is designed to show men the benefits of challenging masculinity.

              Social marketing prevention campaigns employ a wide variety of techniques to engage communities within their message. Synthesizing the efforts of various campus campaigns, research and programing provides a multitude of promising preventative opportunities. Colleges are utilizing a diversity of prevention strategies. Students and administrations should continue to collaborate to understand and share preventative efforts that are effective. Schools must ask themselves how they can most effectively sell ideas and practices to their communities. Prevention efforts should be continually evaluated and improved upon.

  [1] Anna Altman, “How Can Men Prevent Sexual Assault?,” New York Times, September 2, 2014. [2] Nedra K. Weinreich,  “What is Social Marketing,” Last modified 2006,

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