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Why There Are Overweight Doctors and Energy-Guzzling Consumers

We poll Americans four times a year to track their shifting opinions about all things energy and environment-related and we consistently see that knowing stuff doesn’t make folks want to change.

We all know overweight doctors, dentists with cavities, and bankers who aren’t saving enough for retirement. Yet, talking to many folks who are deeply committed to environmental salvation, you wouldn’t know that to be true. Many of our clients and friends in the environmental community consistently say things like, “If only Americans really understood how their daily actions are damaging the planet, they’d change their ways. We must help them see this! We must educate them!”

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Not so much.

We poll Americans four times a year to track their shifting opinions about all things energy and environment-related, to fuel the development of our creative campaigns (we’re an ad agency), and we consistently see that knowing stuff doesn’t make folks want to change. In fact, some Americans are pretty dug in.

Only 48 percent of the American population currently believes that global warming is happening and caused by humans. Of those who aren’t sure or flat-out don’t believe, we’ve asked: “Which of the following scenarios would convince you that climate change is a real and immediate threat and cause you to make dramatic changes in your lifestyle? You wake up one morning and find out that…” followed by a list of possible “nightmare” environmental scenarios, which have all been cited as real possibilities by climate scientists:

  • The polar ice cap has melted.
  • Kids can no longer go outside and play due to consistently dangerous ozone/pollution levels.
  • Shifting weather patterns/lack of rain is turning Nebraska into a desert.
  • There are only 20 polar bears estimated to be left living in the wild.
  • Residents of American Samoa are having to be relocated due to rising tides.

One-quarter (27 percent) of those who don’t believe global warming is happening said NONE of these scenarios would convince them that it’s happening, and another 24 percent said one or more would convince them but they’d be unlikely to make changes.

So…educating Americans about all the horrible outcomes of their unfriendly-to-the-planet lifestyles doesn’t actually result in shifting attitudes and behaviors. What actually works is talking to those consumers about what they care about the most: themselves. Couching the benefits of environmentally friendly products in terms of being smart, feeling in control, winning respect, finding ways to be more comfortable, etc., wins the day.

All the science of behavior theory/behavior change (of which much has been written about in 2010) definitely applies here as well. For instance, you can’t move someone who’s more extrinsically motivated to do a thing with the promise of an intrinsic reward (“you’ll feel so good about yourself!”), and you don’t move people forward with broad, ill-defined requests and benefits (“Make your home more energy efficient!” “Save money!”). As in all advertising, it’s really about understanding the target, knowing their deepest desires, and going for the jugular in promising to fulfill those desires.

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That’s how we can nudge overweight doctors to go on diets, dentists to floss regularly, bankers to save more, and consumers to stop guzzling energy.

Suzanne Shelton is the CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency exclusively focused on motivating mainstream Americans to make more sustainable choices. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and a featured speaker at numerous conferences every year on this topic, largely pulling insights from the firm’s quarterly polling of Americans and their creative campaign work for some of America’s largest brands.

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