Is green marketing a luxury for good economic times?

It seems that ads promoting a healthy planet only thrive during a healthy economy. According to three Penn State University researchers, green marketing rises and falls in lockstep with key indicators of economic growth.

The researchers examined 30 years of environmental advertising in National Geographic Magazine and compared it to what was happening with the gross domestic product at various points in time. 

“Because advertisers do a lot of research into public attitudes before they create and place ads, we took advertising as a reliable proxy for environmental concern,” says Lee Ahern, assistant professor of advertising and public relations in Penn State’s College of Communications. “We found that changes in GDP do indeed predict the level of ‘green’ advertising.” 

Ahern, Denise S. Bortree, assistant professor of communication, and Alexandra N. Smith, a doctoral candidate in the College of Communications, are the authors of a paper in the journal, Public Understanding of Science, which is available online now and is forthcoming in print. Their work was supported by a grant from The Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication. 

They learned that between January 1979 and December 2008, National Geographic ran 692 pages of green ads, defined as “…all ads that invoked environmental protection in some meaningful way.” Most were placed by corporations, though some came from advocacy organizations and business association or industry front groups. 

They found a significant statistical correlation between the health of the GDP and the numbers of green ads. This syncs with the long-held theorized relationship between economic well-being and environmental concern (known as Inglehart’s post-materialist values shift thesis). This study is one of few to offer empirical evidence of this connection.

“Marketers have their fingers on the pulse of public sentiment,” Ahern said. “Using the level of green advertising as a proxy for general environmental concern, we can see that economic trends significantly predict this ‘greenness’ indicator.”

Next page: Different messages for different times