Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change
Take a moment to envision an advertising agency. I bet you came up with a bunch of cooler than thou hipsters who drink and womanize in sleek, minimalist offices, right? I used to work in an advertising office so I am here to tell you that you are absolutely right! But here’s the interesting part: when it comes to trying to convince people to take action on climate change, those expensive square glasses and ironic t-shirts clothe the soul of Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons.
Witness the collection of hilariously depressing climate change ads compiled by GOOD. A little girl staring down an oncoming train, a parade of big eyed waifs narrating their ruined future, a baby drowning in a bathtub. The idea is to make people stop and think about the consequences of their actions on future generations. Unfortunately, these ads don’t work. At all. In fact, a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that advertisements that present children as the primary victims of climate change actually make people significantly less likely to take action.
Why “Think of the Children” Ads Don’t Work
Matthew Feinberg at the University of California, Berkeley speculated that the mechanism at play here is the “fair world” bias. Most Americans believe that life is fair and that the world is an inherently just place. When that belief is threatened, we become more likely to both reject data supporting the threat and to refuse to take action.
Feinberg and his partner, Robb Willer, devised a neat little experiment to test this idea. First, he had his subjects unscramble one of two sentences: “Somehow justice will always prevail” and “Often, justice will not prevail.” That created one group of people primed to think of the world as a just place and one group primed to think that life just isn’t fair. Then subjects took a survey rating their belief in the strength of the evidence for climate change and their willingness to take action. Next they watched the “girl on the train tracks” ad and the “clock is ticking on my future” ad. Finally, they retook the survey measuring their belief in the strength of the evidence and their willingness to take action.
Check out the findings Scientific American reported:
“participants primed to have a stronger belief in a just world reported levels of skepticism that were 29 percent higher, and a willingness to reduce their carbon footprint that was 21 percent lower, than those primed to see the world as an unjust place.”
In other words, we’ve been spending millions on ads that reduce the chances that the viewer will take action.
What Works Better
We’ve known for a few years now that the best way to get someone to change a habit is to invoke a social norm. The ideal message is “people like me do X” where X is the habit you want to encourage. This is the principle behind one of my favorite orgs, Alliance for Climate Education. Their trainers visit high schools with one of the most engaging climate change presentations I’ve ever seen. ACE trainers demonstrate to their audiences that across the nation high school students just like them are taking action and direct them to a platform that makes it easy to connect with their peers across the country and start taking action themselves. (Full disclosure: I was tangentially involved with their new Do One Thing campaign).
For a closer look at other successful social norms campaigns, check out my old pieces on convincing hotel guests to reuse their linens or convincing NASCAR fans to hate fuel economy regulations.
Data, Data, Data! I Cannot Build Bricks Without Clay!
This whole debacle is an argument for data based marketing and advertising. It’s not enough to base a behavior change campaign on gut feelings or half baked ideas about triggering emotional buttons. In fact, even if you build a campaign based on studies and scientific theories you still have to go out and test the efficacy of your program. The more information you have about how people actually react to your program the better you can make it.
And I’m not just saying that because I really hate watching babies drown while I’m trying to enjoy Castle.
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