Chicago Green Jobs

How To Create A Grassroots Message That Actually Works
April 11, 2009, 9:23 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

So you’ve probably had a conversation about climate change/phthalates/recycling  in which someone utters the phrase “If I could just make them understand how important it is!”  Sadly, the very people who care most about an issue are the people who are least able to put themselves in the shoes of the people they are trying to convince. This is why most businesses hire a PR or marketing agency to develop campaigns – their hired guns can be clever and effective without clouds of emotion and detailed knowledge of the issue in the way.

What all pros in the messaging biz know is that people make most decisions based on emotions first and then summon up logical reasons to explain themselves afterwards.  The good news is that many environmental and social messages offer fertile ground for emotional appeals.  The bad news is that there are plenty of emotional appeals that have nothing to do with adorable polar bears and smiling blond children blowing bubbles at windmills, and that opponents of green and social campaigns are really good at manipulating them.

Take the campaign I worked on for GM. Our job was to convince voters to call up their members of Congress to register their opposition to legislation that would require car manufacturers to build cars with better gas mileage. Our campaign was part of the winning team: when new CAFE legislation was signed in December of 2001 the standard held steady at 27.5 mpg, which was the level set in 1986.

There are plenty of reasons why stronger CAFE legislation couldn’t get passed for decades (hundreds of millions of dollars in auto industry lobbying fees leap to mind), but the truth is that the auto industry has a winning hand when it comes to emotional appeals.

The bumper sticker that we handed out at NASCAR rallies is a perfect microcosm of our campaign. It read: “Hey Feds – Get Your Hands Off My Truck. No New Energy Regs!” Here are three reasons why it connected with people on an emotional level:

1. People love their cars. I used to drive a red Toyota Tacoma pick-up truck and I loved it. We named our truck Dog in honor of my sister-in-law’s dog named Truck. My first road-trip with my husband was in that truck. We took it camping in ten states. It moved us across the country three times. When I drove it I sat above all the people in their cars, and I felt all cool and southern. We finally gave up the truck when we moved to Chicago to stay, but it wasn’t easy. Loving your car is as American as apple pie, so that line “Get your hands of my truck” resonates.

2. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In most situations people prefer to maintain the status quo rather than to shake things up. An issue as wonky as fuel economy regulations just doesn’t fire up the imagination. Most folks can’t see how such a change would benefit them, so they’re already disposed to just let sleeping dogs lie. The line “no new energy regs” plays on that predisposition.

3. NASCAR doesn’t like Big Brother. NASCAR is popular everywhere but it was born in the south. You know what else is popular in the south? Right wing politics! This is a crowd that is predisposed to believe that government is the problem, not the solution. The bumper sticker starts out with “Hey Feds” so that the reader can identify the enemy right away. It ends with “no new energy regs” so that readers know the exact issue at hand. Add in “Get your hands off my truck” and you’ve got an emotional appeal masterpiece that also includes a call to action.

I hate to say it, but my firm did a great job with that campaign. But what if we’d gotten hired on the other side of the issue? Is there any possible way that proponents of fuel economy regulations could have crafted an effective emotional appeal? Here are three possible counteracting appeals:

1. Americans don’t like “playing politics.” Despite the partisan rancor thronging the airwaves, polls show that  a majority of Americans want to see solutions, not politics.

2. People like saving money. Fuel economy regulations would ensure that most car buyers would pay thousands less for gasoline over the lifetime on the purchase, and everyone likes saving money!

3. People want good value for their money. In an ideal world, consumers would prefer to get a better car that also saves them money. They don’t buy the idea that car companies can only make good cars OR save their customers money.

So a good counteracting bumper sticker might read: “Stop playing politics and build me a better car.” Would it be good enough? Maybe not. Not all emotional appeals are created equal – love for a car will usually trump the desire for a good deal. Would it be better than talking about our country’s “oil addiction,” as the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy did? Almost certainly.


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I wanted to thank you for this great blog!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

Comment by Ray " jobs search "

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