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


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