I traveled a good bit of yesterday and caught up on some reading while zipping through the used-to-be-friendly skies. I’ve gotten most of the way through the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions’ “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication,” and I highly recommend it to everyone who’s working to communicate about anything related to sustainability or energy efficiency. Regardless of where you fall on the whole climate change thing — believer or non-believer — this guide does an excellent job of teeing up different mindsets (which are present whether you’re talking about climate issues, green products or energy efficiency) and being very specific about the words and language that work for various mindsets.
I was struck by a section in the chapter “Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals” about the Finite Pool of Worry. Now, if you’ve heard me speak or if you’ve worked with our firm, you know Shelton Group has long advocated the use of both an emotional and rational appeal in all sustainability and EE advertising. We’ve tested ad after ad, including our own, and what we find is that the ads with a strictly logical appeal fall flat, as do those with solely an emotional appeal. The ones that work appeal to the emotional side of the brain first and then support the feeling generated in that part of the brain with a few specific proof points that the rational parts of the brain can grab hold of. That’s how our brains work.
What intrigued me here, though, was the assertion that humans have a limited capacity for worry — in other words, we can worry about only so much for so long before we just numb-out. We certainly saw this happen dramatically in 2009 — for three years in our Energy Pulse survey the answer to “what’s the number one reason to conserve energy” was “to preserve the quality of life for future generations,” followed by “to protect our environment and save natural resources.” Saving money was third on the list. After the bottom fell out of the economy our capacity to worry about future generations and future resources fell by the wayside and we focused our attention on the immediate worry: money. “Saving Money” leapfrogged to the number one spot on that question and has been there ever since.
We also see in our Green Living Pulse survey that “the economy” dwarfs “the environment” as the number one concern of Americans. Again, we have a limited capacity for worry, and money’s getting the attention right now.
So, as you market your energy efficient and sustainable products, bear this in mind. Consumers are largely numbed-out to environmental worries right now, so trying to motivate them to buy something by appealing to a concern about the planet won’t work with the vast majority of Americans. Appealing to their pocket right now has a better chance of success. AND REMEMBER THAT THIS IS REFLECTIVE OF THE CURRENT TIMES. Once our economy is in a good place again, appeals about future worries — kids, resources, nature, etc. — will start working again.