Power of persuasion

31st January 2020

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Is positivity and community more effective than guilt for nudging people in the right direction? Elisabeth Jeffries reports

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg's widely reported speeches to the UN in 2019 have not yet prompted a mass switch to greener products. That is probably because, according to research from Warwick Business School, communication based on guilt or fear does not in itself stimulate change. While the language of campaigners has its place in politics, the school's studies reveal that consumers need to be reached differently.

“Making people feel guilty does not encourage them to 'buy green' in future,“ says Hugh Wilson, professor of marketing, discussing a study using consumer recall.

During the project conducted by the school, researchers emphasised the scale of the environmental problem to one group of participants and made them feel guilty about their contribution to it. Another group was asked to remember something they had done that was good for the planet, however small. Both groups were then asked what kind of car they were going to buy next.

The business school noted a big difference. Those that had been encouraged to feel guilty did not really change their car preferences in comparison with members of a control group, who had only been asked about their next car. However, those who had been encouraged to feel proud of the steps they had already taken were far more likely to commit to buying a green car next time. “Remembering the pride we feel after making environmentally friendly decisions is more likely than guilt to motivate us to make green choices in future,“ says Wilson.

Another study by the school examined pride within the family and community. It found that individual women washing clothes in countries experiencing water stress ignored Unilever's efforts to sell them washing powder that cut water use by two-thirds – saving the planet did not interest them.

“For them, using plenty of water demonstrated that they were good, diligent home-makers“, explains Wilson. This self-image was reflected not only in their own home but also within their neighbourhood. When the company encouraged them to feel that water efficiency would mean they were viewed more positively in the community, though, the women switched.

Carrot and stick

Communications based on penalties are also only partially effective. “Government initiatives tell the public what not to do, which often serves only to emphasise how many other people engage in that behaviour in the first place. That can trigger what psychologists call a 'descriptive norm' – if everyone is doing it, it must be acceptable“, explains Wilson.

The charity Climate Outreach has signalled the value of both unpleasant and positive emotions. The Oxford-based NGO campaigns for better communications about climate change that can reach different types of audiences effectively. In its first set of awards in November 2019, it conferred its Climate Visuals Photography Award on documentary photographer Ann Johansson, for her hopeful image of a woman standing in her home in Uttar Pradesh, India, which is lit by a solar-powered lantern that functions off the grid.

In contrast, the organisation's Climate Change Communicator of the year award went to Marshall Islander Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Greenlander Aka Niviâna, poets and activists from communities that are thousands of miles apart but are both experiencing the impacts of climate change. In a vivid and moving, but frightening, video, they describe through poetry how they feel and what could happen to their homelands. Could this negativity be giving people a reason to switch off?

A survey by the Centre for Climate and Social Transformations (CAST) shows that fear-based communication does have its place and has helped to raise awareness. CAST is a joint initiative by Climate Outreach and the universities of Cardiff, East Anglia, Manchester and York. The poll revealed that almost half the UK public has become more worried about climate change during the past year. Two-thirds feel that we should, for example, limit air travel to address climate change.

However, stalling consumer action on climate change during the past 20 years seems to confirm the idea that awareness-raising is not enough, and that fear and alarm alone do not provoke action. Dr Stuart Capstick, research fellow at CAST partner the Cardiff School of Psychology, takes a more nuanced view. “Where you draw attention to the worrying consequences of climate change and do provide evidence of contributing something meaningful to solutions, fear and anxiety can be effective,“ he says.

A collective approach

One specific problem is the fact that many advertising and marketing channels avoid generating a sense of mutual wellbeing, instead focusing on the wellbeing of individual consumers. “Many of us want to feel we are contributing, and we can get a 'warm glow' from, for example, buying an electric vehicle,“ says Capstick. “At a deeper level, though, we view it as a drop in the ocean.“ This factor holds back progress on environmental issues, which are communal in character.

Sustainability marketing agency Futerra suggests that change is in the air. Co-founder Solitaire Townsend confirms that individual targeting is still commonplace in, for example, sectors such as beauty and dietary products, which thrive on consumers' feelings of personal inadequacy and anxiety – but she has also observed a growth in marketing to micro-groups such as vegetarians.

“Movement marketing, based on targeting groups who share strongly held values, has been increasing during the past five years in the US and the past 18 months in the UK,“ she says. This approach differs from traditional segmentation marketing in that the groups have already formed themselves and are not identified or shaped by the brand marketers. “These are not brand-led movements – they are consumer-led,“ she continues. Many companies are now interested in accessing these markets.

Futerra aims to help businesses develop marketing that is based on social and environmental incentives, rather than financial incentives alone. In the US, for example, major outdoor apparel retailer REI discourages consumption by shutting its stores on Black Friday, the Friday following Thanksgiving in the US – traditionally a day for shopping. Instead, it urges customers and employees to go for a hike, promoting the appreciation of nature as well as the use of its clothes. The company is a consumer co-operative, so its outlook may differ from that of many other businesses – but numerous other retailers in the US have followed its lead.

Companies that focus on social benefits are still unusual, but leading examples could prefigure further change. HSBC's 'We are not an island' advertisements are a case in point, focusing on community identification within cities while drawing attention to the power of global communication. To inspire further change, we need to communicate the community and environmental benefits of acting on climate change – not simply follow the media's lead, which largely focuses on apocalyptic scenarios.

Behaviour change will require more participation from the corporate sector as well as government, and must urge a sense of pride and achievement. “We need to give people encouragement from time to time, and the media isn't likely to do that,“ says Wilson. “So it's important that companies do.“

Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance journalist.


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