Selling the Flood: Social and commercial marketing examined in the context of climate change


When considering the practice of visual communications it is often useful to understand the theoretical and conceptual basis for it. As is obvious different areas of design and promotion require markedly distinctive approaches. So an interesting piece in the Guardian from last year which reported research conducted in the United Kingdom on the issue of communicating the reality and implications of climate change provides a good insight into such distinctions. Broadly on the central issue of climate change it concluded that:

The government needs to drop “gloomy, miserable and bleak” messages in climate change ads and focus on more positive emotional messages to get the public to change their habits, according to a new report.

This conclusion is to be found in the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts commissioned report “Selling Sustainability: Seven lessons from advertising and marketing to sell low-carbon living” which considers what are the optimal means of communicating the realities of climate change to the public and how that can alter behaviour. As NESTA states on their website:

Climate change is by definition a global problem, but one that requires each nation, each individual to take their share of responsibility – and more importantly, to take action…

Encouraging people to make this move will require expertise and insight from as many relevant fields as possible. In this case, we asked BMRB – one of the leading market research agencies in the UK – Millward Brown, Ogilvy, and The University of Cardiff.

Their insights, into what we can learn about behaviour change from commercial and social advertising and marketing, make this report an unusual but important contribution to the debate around how we respond to climate change.

Together with the insights from our practical programmes around innovation, we hope that these findings form an increasingly powerful combination that will help the UK meet the challenge of low-carbon living.

The summary argues that:

Climate change represents a major threat to human society. Significant social change, alongside technological innovation, is necessary if we are to avert this threat. This will require millions of individuals to change their everyday behaviour, from the power they use at home, to how they travel. If they are to have this kind of impact, the public campaigns that seek to influence individuals need to embrace the most sophisticated approaches and techniques from advertising and marketing – including ‘selling’ the positive opportunities and emotions that could be associated with taking action.

And that:

Policy has not yet fully recognised the importance of mass behaviour change in meeting the climate challenge

In the piece that complemented the report the Guardian asked the question was ‘boredom was setting in’ as regards climate change.

On one level it is hard to believe that a planetary emergency could evince boredom. But the very slow rate at which the effects of climate change are revealed is in and of itself is a significant problem. Simply put if we cannot see the change then we are unlikely to feel strongly about it and certainly not sufficiently so to actually do anything to combat it.

Yet, if this raises potentially contradictory approaches then it is unsurprising that a similar dissonance is evident in the comments of those involved. For example:

Darren Bhattachary, a director at the British Market Research Bureau, which was commissioned by Nesta to undertake the wide-ranging advertising study, said: “Climate change is often portrayed as problematic and negative and many campaigns miss the mark by pushing rational measures, like scary percentages and scientific messages, instead of an emotional message.

“It has been shown that if you employ both methods then the success on behaviour change is hugely increased.”

It is hard at this remove to see what is unemotive about ‘scary percentages’. Then intriguingly the examples proffered of more suitable advertising appear to operate in a completely different fashion.

Nesta’s report highlights TV ad campaigns such as Honda’s upbeat animated Diesel engine, which uses the catchy jingle “Hate something, change something”, as an example of how to push an effective message about environmental change.

The fact that selling a car is somewhat different than warning about climate change would appear to be central, and the report does note this. As it states:

Climate change communications differ from the more typical private sector marketing programme in several ways. Perhaps the most fundamental is the nature of the benefit to the individual. Acting on climate change is uncertain, social, long-term and intangible. It also provokes some ‘hair shirt’ expectations, where most marketing promises us greater utility of one sort or another. It is also harder clearly to identify what is being advertised. In campaigns for branded goods and services, this is relatively straightforward. However, less tangible categories such as social goods present particular challenges, in particular, the definition of what it is we want people to identify might not be obvious.

It then gives as examples of useful campaigns in similar vein a Drink Drive Campaign in Northern Ireland and a Home Office Crime Prevention campaign in the UK. With the latter…

The creative idea was to see things from the criminal’s point of view. This had the effect of humanising the criminal, making him less threatening. At the same time, it reinforced the audience’s indignation by showing the disregard with which he treated other people’s belongings. The campaign line was: ‘Don’t give them an easy ride.’ During the campaign, vehicle crime reduced more than 37 per cent. While a variety of factors influenced the overall reduction, evidence suggests that communications made a significant contribution.
The campaign was deemed to be so successful at changing consumer attitudes and behaviour towards vehicle crime that the communications task has since been broadened to include robbery and burglary.

And from this the conclusion is that:

As with commercial campaigns, it is important to say something new While recognition levels are linked to exposure, other factors also play their part. Ads which capture people’s attention and imagination, which they enjoy or which say something new, tend to fare better than one might expect given the level of exposure.

It also notes that the media context where in the past…

…public sector campaigns have benefited from a lack of competitors, making it easier to stand out. However as social marketing grows and the number of campaigns increases, this advantage is diminishing.

Certainly, as has already been noted previously on this site, there is an enormously competitive social marketing environment extant and this is likely to increase for both political and socio-economic reasons over the next decade.

Shifting away from the central concern of climate change Appendix 1 of the report is worthy of consideration. It examines “Some conceptual differences between social and commercial marketing” and reworks the “Four P’s” of commercial marketing – product, price, place/distribution and promotion – into a social context. So it is that products are replaced by propositions.

…with climate change, propositions already being put to consumers include: ‘wash clothes at 30°’, ‘recycle’ or ‘don’t leave appliances on standby’. Embedded within virtually all these propositions is a specific behaviour or set of behaviours that the social marketer wants individuals to adopt and continue. One simple proposition that has been the focus of social marketing campaigns in countries including Australia, Denmark and Canada is that ‘cycling (or walking) instead of driving is good for you and good for the planet’. Such campaigns seek to move people away from an energy-intensive form of consumption, to more sustainable behaviour that meets the same need.

Place is reshaped as accessibility, since ‘social marketing is not generally based around physical products [and] ‘distribution’ or ‘place’ issues become less relevant’. Curiously, and as noted in the report, this shifts us back towards some commercial marketing in that ‘social marketing is more like services marketing’. The report suggests that

…in the context of promoting climate-aware behaviour, access to alternatives is important, whether to alternative means of achieving satisfaction (such as more convenient public transport) or information or expertise that helps to reduce CO2 emissions.

Price becomes ‘Costs of involvement’. In other words, ‘the costs of changing behaviour are not generally financial (although a financial cost could be involved). Costs are more likely to involve time and effort, or overcoming psychological barrier to change’. The example given is:

So when encouraging people to cycle rather than drive, this could be achieved by raising the costs of driving through congestion charging or parking restrictions. It could also be achieved by providing incentives that reduce the financial or psychological costs involved in cycling.

Finally promotion is replaced by ‘Social communication’. It argues that “just as commercial marketers communicate to promote the trial, adoption, identification with and regular purchase of their products, social marketers communicate to promote the acceptance, adoption and maintenance of a particular social proposition or behaviour”. This is exemplified by:

To complete cycling promotion examples, the Århus Bike Bus’ters used many conventional marketing communication tools including flyers, a launch event and a regular magazine for participants. But less conventionally, and more interactively, participants were asked to sign a contract, which committed them to reduce their car use as much as possible and to cycle or use public transport instead.

To a degree the low level of the examples given indicate just how novel this specific area is. There have been many examples of previous state-sponsored health campaigns, but those could be seen as having very clear end goals, and the report itself discusses health education campaigns such as those targeted towards cutting cigarette consumption. The very nature of climate change, something that impinges on all areas of human activity, is such that tackling it in a comprehensive manner, and communicating that in campaigns is extremely difficult.

This generates a paradox, for as the report notes…while some current campaigns have focused on small, realistic actions (turning off appliances when they are not in use, driving more smoothly to use less fuel, recycling cans), there may be some scepticism about whether such actions will really have a larger impact.

And consequently:

A major challenge is then for climate change campaigns to empower people to take actions to address the issue at hand, in the same way that the vehicle crime campaign cited in Section 3 moved people from seeing car crime as a necessary evil beyond their control, to something for which they could take responsibility.

And the final paragraph of the report encapsulates the problem succinctly.

Moving to a low-carbon society and economy will require a broader commitment for social and technological change, supported and driven by a clear policy framework. This will require far stronger linkages between, for example, energy policy and innovation policy, and a more active management of energy markets – both of which challenge the policy status quo

The goal of future campaigns must be to tie these disparate and often conflicting strands together in a manner which is effective and communicates both the enormity of the problems faced as well as a clear practical means to tackle them. It seems, from the report, that the hope is that the use of ’emotionally positive’ messages will be one way forward. Whether that is an effective strategy in the context of economic and financial slowdown remains to be seen.

But the true utility of this document is that it very clearly outlines the sharply distinctive requirements of social campaigns and the contrasts between them and commercial campaigns. That is in itself of considerable value to anyone interested in this particular area.

Ciarán Swan


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