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The Big Oil Spill: is it enough to change consumer behavior?

By president and CEO, Suzanne Shelton

We often talk about how Americans are a see-it-to-believe it lot.  We see it show up in our focus groups and surveys — if people have a real-world, tangible connection to something (as in, they have a kid with asthma or a relative who lives in a remote village in South American with major water shortage issues) they’re a lot more tuned in to sustainability in general and have already locked in sustainable behaviors and buying patterns.  We capitalize on this in our work as well — our communication and advertising campaigns ALWAYS include both an emotional appeal and a rational appeal (very specific reasons to believe, very specific benefits one can expect).  And we’ve seen this work time and time again.

So when oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico we wondered:  is this tangible and real enough to make Americans adopt conservation behaviors?  Can we connect what’s happening in the sea now to our own demand for energy and daily consumption of it?  If so, will we change our ways?

Thus, we fielded a two-night poll Monday and Tuesday.  We got 1,312 completed surveys, giving our data a +/- 3% margin of error.  The results are a mixed bag and whether you see them as encouraging or depressing really depends on the lens you use to look at the data.  Here are the key takeaways:

  • 50% of Americans said they plan to do nothing in response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  20% said they planned to reduce their gas consumption in light of the accident and 14% said they planned to reduce their consumption of plastic products and products sold in plastic containers.
  • When asked how they characterize the accident, 39% thought “it was a terrible accident caused by corporate negligence” and 36% said “it was a terrible accident, but our country’s need for domestic oil makes the possibility of such accidents an acceptable risk.  21% said that “it was an accident waiting to happen and offshore drilling should be halted.
  • And the response option with the lowest agreement level (7%) was “it was indirectly caused by my own gas and petroleum-based product consumption.”

One other piece:

  • 42% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The recent West Virginia coal mine disaster and the oil spill in the Gulf have made me think more about the human and environmental costs associated with my own energy consumption.”

Though we were surprised at the number who said this kind of accident is an acceptable risk, as marketers of conservation and sustainability, we’re encouraged by the number who say recent events are at least causing them to think about their consumption.  We expect the number of people indicating they’ll take action will increase with the number of images we begin to see of oil covered dolphins and dead turtles and pelicans.  As this story develops, and as you market energy conservation, keep in mind that the benefits and costs must be made real to Americans before they’ll take action.  And also keep in mind that we have short attention spans.  So now may be the time to plant some seeds.

We intend to repeat these questions in our Green Living Pulse survey, which goes in the field in a couple of weeks.  We’ll keep you posted on how consumer opinion is developing and shifting…and on what that means for your advertising and marketing.

Patrick Hunt

About Patrick Hunt

Patrick Hunt is CEO of Fiveworx, a customer engagement energy efficiency solutions provider spun off of Shelton Group after nearly a decade polling American consumers about energy efficiency and learning about creating behavior change around energy. See more at fiveworx.com.

View all posts by Patrick Hunt →

3 Comments

  1. I think the fact that events make people really think is what matters. It has been such a challenge implementing a companywide sustainability program because many employees just don’t care. It means changing the way people think!

  2. I’d like to encourage you to take a 2nd poll, now that another month of this disaster has passed, to evaluate if there has been a shift in sentiment. I think weeks and weeks of “spill cam” may have convinced more people to conserve. (BTW: I’m encouraged that 20% want to cut their consumption of oil.) Would you consider another poll?

  3. I am STUNNED that 36% of people think it is an acceptable risk. Stunned, and saddened.

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