As we travel around the country talking with ordinary Americans about energy efficiency, it’s common to hear them express confusion about why, all of a sudden, their power company is asking them to use less energy after decades of encouraging them to use more. For many folks, this seems like a dramatic turn of events that just doesn’t make any sense. It seems like a contradiction.
And so it is with advertising that encourages folks to exercise some self-control and conserve energy. Let’s be honest here: for decades, it’s been our job to tell people they don’t have to sacrifice anything if they do what we say. Simply by owning product X, they will be happier, skinnier, sexier, healthier, more popular, a better parent, a more responsible person. We’ve built a culture of consumption. Heck, we don’t even refer to people as people, we call them consumers instead, measuring their lifetime worth by the amount of money they spend on our products.
And when it comes to energy, we know that most Americans would choose their comfort or convenience over the environment, and many times comfort and convenience require additional energy use, like keeping your thermostat set at 72 degrees year round. Americans simply aren’t good at using self-control when it comes to energy conservation.
Here’s the kicker. Psychologists now know that self-control is a finite resource. There’s only so much self-control a person can exercise before they run out, reach for the Cheetos, dial their ex-boyfriend, light up a forbidden cigarette or reset their thermostat to a more comfortable temperature.
I’m afraid, as marketers, we’ve helped exhaust Americans’ limited supply of self-control. And now, as a country, we need some. Okay, we need a lot. We’ve got an obesity epidemic, an energy addiction and a financial crisis to deal with.
So how do we turn it around? We can’t do what we’ve always done. We have to look at things from a different perspective – we have to now celebrate conservation instead of consumption. We have to make keeping up with the Joneses less appealing (which is tough since we love, love, love instant gratification) and we have to break down these huge goals and calls to action (“Save energy” “Live a healthier lifestyle”) into digestible steps and concrete tasks people can take (“Set your thermostat at 68 degrees” “Buy 1% milk instead of whole milk”).
It’s time for a new set of emotional strategies that will help build self-control rather than break it down. And it’s time for us to help repair what we’ve broken.