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Power Points

Finding the right message for taking the sustainability movement mainstream

How to use the power of advertising for the fight against climate change.

renewable advertising

Image via Shutterstock/NMStudio789

Advertising helped form the culture of consumerism that fueled the Industrial Revolution and our modern dependence on fossil fuels. Many of the same advertising strategies are being used to sell products and services that reduce that dependence. As the sustainability movement matures from the anti-establishment ethos of its origins in the 1960s and '70s to the more mainstream movement of today, the message and values behind what it means to be sustainable are also evolving. 

At VERGE 23 last month, I spoke with Simon White, an altruistic advertising professional, about the techniques advertisers use to motivate buyers and what today’s sustainability movement can learn from Madison Avenue. According to White, "Advertising has largely escaped scrutiny for its role in fueling both the environmental crisis and increasing levels of depression, despite research showing it’s done both."

Asking people to save the planet isn’t the right request

The messages used to promote the sustainability movement often center around saving the planet, preserving biodiversity or averting mass extinctions. Then there’s doom and gloom: There is no Planet B, the earth is on fire, this is our last chance to mitigate climate change. 

The problem with these messages, White observed, is that humans are not easily motivated to take action against long-term threats and slow-developing catastrophes. Our psychology has developed over millennia as hunter-gatherers to flee or fight immediate threats, like a snake in the grass or a tiger in the bush. Unfortunately, climate change is just not the type of problem humans are wired to respond to.

Public perceptions of sustainable solutions are also detrimental to the environmental cause. Living sustainably is seen as a tradeoff for most consumers, requiring us to sacrifice comfort and convenience for the benefit of nature. Hanging your clothes on a clothesline and eating less meat are not behaviors that will get the general public excited about a sustainable lifestyle. 

The sustainability movement has not been great at advertising, and advertising is a key strategy used by the companies fighting to keep the unsustainable status quo.

Moving from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation

"Advertising’s job is to make you desire things and therefore destroy contentment in the current moment," White told me. 

The basic proposition that buying something will make you happier is an example of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation derives from external factors, such as having more money, goods or status in other people’s eyes; it is the primary motivator that advertisers have used for decades to fuel the overconsumption that has made our society unsustainable. 

Research by Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University has shown that increased exposure to this type of advertising leads to greater unhappiness. This is in part because long-term happiness is gained by intrinsic motivations, such as doing the right thing and helping others. 

White discovered this in his own life after developing insomnia. He started meditating to help him sleep. In studying Buddhism and meditation, White began to ask himself basic questions, such as "How do I want to live my life?"

As he questioned the things that he intrinsically valued, beyond what society had told him to value, he found a conflict between his professional advertising work and his new personal ethics.

"Advertising in itself isn't evil. It can be a force for good or bad," White said. "So I now want to use the skills I've learned to help purpose-driven companies and companies working in sustainability to get their message out there. To use these dark arts to make the world a better place."

White is launching a marketing agency, Reluctant Martian, to help companies, especially startups, turn sustainability into a competitive advantage. He’s also working on a book that examines the harmful effects of advertising on people and the environment. 

A message for mainstream sustainability

There were two takeaways for me from meeting White: 

  1. If our culture shifted from being extrinsically motivated to more intrinsically motivated, we would be happier and more sustainable. 
  2. People are habituated to ads that appeal to extrinsic motivations. While we are in the middle of the sustainability market transformation, companies need to continue to use this strategy to motivate buyers.

Research by Ipsos shows how highly effective ads can appeal both to a brand’s benefits and the values of sustainability. By focusing on tangible and credible consumer benefits, companies gain trust and loyalty. 

Tom’s Shoes is a great example of a company that doesn’t just ask you to buy their shoes; it asks you to help solve a problem. Tom’s Shoes is effectively linking its brand value to actual social value and in doing so driving a greater customer value from purchasing its product. 

Sustainable companies can no longer advertise that happiness is just out of reach until you buy a new phone or a flashier car or trendier sneakers. That kind of purchased satisfaction is inherently transitory; it’s the opposite of sustainable.

Sustainability is not sacrifice; it is the path to true happiness. 

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