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Do Strong Words Spur Green Consumer Action?

Slogans and ads used in environmental campaigns often use stronger and assertive language than ads for consumer goods, which is critical to their success.

Using assertive language in environmental slogans & ads works.

Should organizations that want consumers to adopt green behaviour use strong, assertive words in their advertising messages? Ann Kronrod and colleagues at the MIT Sloan School of Management decided to investigate.

In an analysis of slogans and ads used by environmental agencies, the researchers found that environmental messages often use much stronger and more assertive language than ads for consumer goods. This assertiveness turns out to be critical to the success of the environmental campaigns.

Assertive Messaging, Positive Outcomes

In the study, participants said they were more likely to take action after reading the directive “You must economize water!” — water conservation being very important in Israel, where the study took place. They were less inclined to act when presented with the assertive message, “You must economize soap,” because the reduction of soil pollution through less soap use is of lesser concern in Israel than conserving water.

The researchers tested the likelihood of participants signing an online petition to save the Mediterranean. They published a sponsored link using Google Adwords and associated the link with sea-related search terms as well as general search terms. The goal was to determine whether or not people are more likely to respond to assertive messages than subtle ones when the messages relate to issues they know and care about (i.e. issues they actively searched for online).

The findings run counter to conventional advertising principles, which assume consumers ignore or reject corporate advertising that encroaches on their freedom to make personal decisions. For consumer goods, advertisers aim to be persuasive without being perceived as pushy. Environmentalists, though, can make the hard sell — at least for issues their audience knows and cares about.

Know Your Audience

The researchers found the success of assertive environmental messages depends on the importance people attach to the environmental issue. If the audience feels a particular issue is very important, they are more likely to respond to assertive messages with instructions on how or when to act.

On the other hand, if the audience feels the issue is insignificant, they are far less likely to respond to a forceful message and will reject the issue and organization. In this case, organizations are wise to use subtler language.

Messaging Tips

  • Before developing an environmental campaign, find out how much your target audience knows about the issue and how important they think it is.

  • Educate your audience about the environmental issue and its importance before launching your ad campaign.

  • For your campaign, use bold words and aggressive calls to action if the issue is well known and considered important.

  • Use subtler language for campaigns aimed at a general audience or an audience for whom the issue is not well known.

Limitations of the Research

While this research provides valuable insight into creating effective environmental ad campaigns, the study was conducted only in Israel. More research is needed to fully understand how people across different cultures perceive the tone of environmental slogans and respond to triggers. Since environmental issues often have global impact and require worldwide action, this broader research would help international environmental agencies better target messages to specific cultures or countries.

Kronrod, A., Grinstein, A., and L. Wathieu. (2011). Go Green! Should Environmental Messages Be So Assertive? Journal of Marketing 76(1): 95-102.

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  • Kristin Neudorf
    Director, Knowledge Management and Translation
    Grand Challenges Canada
    MSc in Public Health, School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London

    View all posts
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