Corporate environmental ads are more persuasive when concern is high
October 2, 2017
By Barbara Miller Gaither, Elon University, and Janas Sinclair, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
While messages about the environment and climate change may be increasingly prominent, they involve complex scientific and public policy issues. In a study funded by the Page Center, we asked how members of the general public who lack environmental expertise make sense of these messages. We focused particularly on when the source is a corporate advertiser communicating about its own environmental initiatives.
Leading global energy, chemical and crop engineering companies engage in environmental advocacy to communicate their environmental initiatives. Their goal is improving or protecting the market for the company’s products and its regulatory environment. These campaigns promote the benefits of corporate initiatives and typically downplay negative impacts of the industry.
In the study “Environmental Marketplace Advocacy: Influences and Implications of U.S. Public Response,” we examined how members of the general public respond to persuasive messages about corporate environmentalism. We also asked how people’s own level of environmental concern affects persuasiveness for these advocacy ads.
This study focused on public response to ads from GE’s “Ecomagination” campaign, DuPont’s “Open Science” campaign and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity’s (ACCCE’s) “America’s Power” campaign. Surprisingly, this national U.S. survey found environmental concern was not associated with skepticism toward these corporate advocacy ads. Instead, environmental concern led to greater persuasion for members of the general public.
Environmental concern only reduced persuasion for people who could be described as experts (people with a graduate degree, a background in science or who were members of an environmental organization). Findings on audience response to the messages and the effects of environment concern were consistent for all of these ads.
This study found members of the public responded to the ads based on their perception that the corporate advertiser would be held accountable for its actions. Also key were perceptions of the message’s trustworthiness. Greater perceived accountability and trust led to greater persuasion.
Accountability and trust represent the types of judgments that communication researchers have called “persuasion knowledge.” It seems that in the absence of technical expertise that would help people evaluate the corporate environmental initiatives discussed in the message, people relied on these judgments about the persuasive message and its source.
The implications of this study’s findings are particularly noteworthy in the United States where science and environmental literacy is low, and these messages represent a significant portion of environmental information for the general public. For communicators working on behalf of the environmental movement, the study findings challenge the notion that increasing environmental concern is the key to raising public support for industry reform and policy change. Education efforts may be key to producing the skepticism toward industry environmental advocacy campaigns that was observed among the experts in this study.
Meanwhile, for corporate communicators working in industries that face heightened scrutiny of their environmental impact, this study provides evidence that corporate messages can be effective at generating favorable attitudes toward both the corporation and its environmental initiatives, particularly when they convey industry accountability in terms of the corporation’s commitment to following social, legal and government regulations. In addition, messages should be trustworthy, which involves not only expressing positive intentions but also transparency in describing corporate environmental initiatives.
This project was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center. For more information about this project, please email Miller Gaither at firstname.lastname@example.org.