OPINION: Preaching to the Green Choir: A Dead End


A recent UC Berkeley study on climate change messaging concluded that excessively emotional and fear-based messages can backfire when presented too negatively, acting to discourage behavior because they engender a sense of powerlessness.

I’m shocked (shocked!) to find that scaring people with negative messages doesn’t change their behavior.

Excuse my sarcasm, but this obvious fact has been a hot button with me for years, and I’m not the only one.  Back in 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus created a stir with their report on The Death of Environmentalism and their subsequent book that argues environmentalists were dead-ending their cause by unwittingly managing it as a special interest group — i.e., in marketing terms, a niche.

Even as early as 1970, the literature from environmental psychology and applied behavioral analysis studying what messages were most effective to get people to stop littering/recycle/etc., made it clear that fear-based negative messages are good at drawing attention, but unless they are paired with positive, empowering, and inclusive messages that foster a sense of hope, community, and shared values, they end up discouraging the very behavior they were intended to encourage, leaving their audiences feeling powerless, alienated and defeated. In the worst case, they result in anger, distrust, and derision.

And yet, we still see the same types of marketing messages from environmental and cleantech types:

  • The polar bear trapped on a small patch of ice
  • The hockey stick graph of atmospheric carbon
  • The ubiquitous picture of a fragile planet earth, sometimes on fire
  • Belching smokestacks
  • Barren deserts
  • Exhortations to save the earth, the air, the planet, the polar bears, etc.
  • (The other dozen or two are left as an exercise for the reader.  Start with a Google image search on “climate change” for example.)

Why do these clichéd, emotional, fear-based, messages persist?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have most of the answers, and my own experience with marketing and PR types in the field provide the remainder: It’s a vicious circle of marketing to a niche group of early adopters that respond positively to these messages, which results in continuing to define that niche group as ever more separate and isolated. In effect, we are all too often preaching to the choir, and in the process, alienating the larger audience.

Demographic studies show this niche group at around 10 percent of the population, depending on how you count it (I’m being generous). The choir is at best one in ten people.

So after giving you a somewhat emotional, fear-based message about emotional fear-based messaging, I’m going to give a positive prescription for messaging, lest I be accused of committing the same sin I’m railing against.

Re-evaluate the value of marketing to niche early adopters. The “choir” demographic is already actively seeking environmental, climate change, and cleantech information (mostly from other choir members and the web).  They don’t need to be beaten about the head to drive their behavior. We know who they are: highly educated, high income, mostly white, homeowners, left-leaning politically, etc.  We know how to reach them, and we know how to speak to them.

It’s the other 90 percent that requires our best marketing research and resources. We need to start asking how to reach the “beef jerky” crowd (FYI, I love beef jerky). We may not be able to reach the Glenn Beck demographic, but if we try speaking in a language of shared values for that outlier group, then we might very well succeed at communicating to a broader middle ground.

Adopt a list of “off limits” marketing messages and images. We should try to develop messaging by first taking the iconography of the “choir” off the table. In addition to the bulleted list above, I suggest removing the following hoary symbols that one might easily find in a Google (s googimage search on “environment”, “climate change,” or “renewable energy”:

  • The color green
  • The light bulb
  • Wind turbines
  • Mountains, trees, babbling brooks, the sun
  • Little girls in cotton print dresses blowing on dandelions in fields of tall grass
  • Al Gore (no disrespect to Al, but he clearly is not a mainstream marketing image).
  • You get the idea

Emphasize broader shared values. While the broader audience may seem highly polarized on the surface, there are themes that bring together groups that, on the surface, may seem strange bedfellows:

  • Responsibility toward children/future generations
  • Saving money, particularly as energy costs inevitably rise
  • Decreasing dependence on repressive oil-based foreign states
  • Nationalism:  restoring pride/independence
  • Negative feelings toward large monopolistic corporations

I personally have had success with these themes in my own experience marketing to diverse audiences, and I know that there must be more, and better, messages out there already being used by someone much smarter than I.

The positive conclusion of this post has been designed to communicate the shared value of reaching past niche markets to bring cleantech solutions to a more mainstream and much larger audience.

I am indebted to my co-founder, Diane Loviglio, for the long hours of market research that informed the ideas behind this post, but she should not be blamed for anything dumb I say here, nor do I imply she agrees with any of it.

“Dead End” photo credit:  Flickr:deber10


KC Donovan

Kurt, I couldn’t agree more with your post – it is a terrific read!

I don’t have someone working on the insights for your concept, but with my own research into managing behaviors for Clean Technology careers I’ve come to very similar conclusions and have written about them a few times (Here: http://ht.ly/4oMfE), (Here: http://ht.ly/4oMy8) and the most popular one (Here: http://ht.ly/4oMKZ).

From my experience there is always a “preaching to the congregation” in the introduction of new ideas where those that naturally agree are in the boat and all jawing at each other. For all the rest – we need a more inclusive invitation to come aboard – I think your five messages are good ones. If I were to pick one that could generate enough sizzle for Joe Six Pack (or Joe Jerky :), the most powerful from your list may be “nationalism” (it’s what JFK used in 1961 with the moon…and it worked famously). Whatever the vehicle/message, I think we need to make it “cool” using all the tools that Hollywood and the “star struck media” can conjure up (think the “Got Milk” campaign – it’s still the best example) – creating “a line to get into” because, well – everyone else is queuing up.

Like Nietzsche said about good new ideas, most people are against them at first, and secondly they will denounce them as absurd and fight against them, then finally in the end they will all say they were for them from the very beginning… Right now we need to fight back the $15M the Oil companies are feeding the opinion making machine each day with a positive, fun campaign that through sheer force of creativity will go viral – grabbing the attention of the masses for years to come. Oh yeah, it also needs to appeal to the under 35 set who by 2015 will have more workers in the economy than the Boomers and Gen X combined!

John C. Briggs

I am a little lost in your discussion. Looks like you have two lists of iconography that you do not like and zero lists of iconography that you do like.

Speaking as part of the choir, I have often found that showing to people a pile of coal that correlates to their inaction (say leaving computers on over night) is useful to build understanding. The physicality of the pile of coal really shocks people that perceive electricity is inherently clean..

Now I am wondering if you are suggesting that such actions are too negative and ineffective.


I agree in part. Frankly, I’ve seen both types of messaging. I have long felt there needs to demonstration of positive actions, otherwise the easily discouraged or overwhelmed become discouraged and overwhelmed. But, I have seen both types of messaging and don’t necessarily see particular movement. And, frankly you don’t bother to include the effect of pathetic MSM and the well-funded misinformation campaign. I think it requires all of it, the downside of not changing and upside of needed change and real effective tangible things that can be done. None of it helps if people think there is nothing they can do.

Sounds like thisis something you’ve known about and have been putting into practice for some time. You can’t be the only one. What impact are you having? I look forward to see you charging ahead at the front and proving your assertions with evidence.

But, if people can’t be bothered, in the end don’t you think we deserve what we get.

Kurt Brown

Thanks ap, I agree the MSM and misinformation campaigns are a barrier and need to be addressed. I’ve always felt that economics and nationalism are two areas where it’s possible to perform “jujitsu” with the misinformation campaigns, since those two areas are often brought up by the sock puppets and astroturf groups funded by clean/green opponents. If we learn to speak about the economics and nationalism of clean/green, we can at least get an audience to listen. (See http://kurtbrown.tumblr.com/post/3654125121/how-not-to-talk-about-energy-part-2-of-2 )

But as I replied above, I also believe the Great Recession trumps everything, and until energy prices rise to a point where they are causing mainstream pain, I think it’s going to be rough going, regardless of the messaging, frankly.


This analysis matches something I was looking at yesterday: interest in cleantech as quantified by Google searches on cleantech topics has been dropping since its peak during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. I was speculating as to how much this had to do with a growing sense of hopelessness, perhaps brought about both by the end of Obama’s “HOPE” campaign and a major uptick in financial troubles related to the mortgage crisis. I talk about specific keyword trends in a short blog post: http://www.gridinsight.com/blog/waning-green/.

Kurt Brown

Good post Gregory. As they say at Google, your technique was very “googly.”

I think your results confirm what I’ve felt from one-on-one interviews with potential “green” consumers, which is that we can’t underestimate what the financial/mortgage crisis did in changing people’s behaviors since the fall of 2008.

Clearly, people are now concerned with paying their mortgages, their rents, and their grocery bills. Money problems have become much more of a challenge and a primary focus for a huge chunk of the population during the ongoing Great Recession, regardless of where they sit on the “green” spectrum.

And it’s still happening — housing prices are still falling, which is at the root of everything.

I think the main lever that “green” marketers will have is the inevitable rise in energy prices (gasoline at the beginning, but later fuel oil in the East, then natural gas everywhere else, with electric trailing all). Only when “green” turns into something that instead saves you from the high energy prices that are blowing your budget will we get some traction.

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