By Bonnie J. Wallace
For those of us working to promote green business practices, it can seem self-evident that these issues are important. It follows that the language we use in messaging is frequently assertive, reflecting that assumption. But is that the most effective way to get our target audience to take action?
In the January 2012 edition of the Journal of Marketing, Ann Kronrod, Amir Grinstein, and Luc Wathieu say that it depends entirely on the target audience. Their research in Go Green!! Should Environmental Messages Be So Assertive?? shows that imperative language can be a very effective means to reach people already persuaded of a subject’s importance, but—here is the critical part—can actually decrease compliance among those people for whom the importance is not clear. In other words, assertive language in environmental and social justice messaging can be doing more harm than good, depending on who is on the receiving end.
This is particularly interesting given that this same team reports that in an examination of real slogans from http://www.ThinkSlogans.com, environmental slogans were nearly three times more often assertive than a random mix of slogans for consumer goods (57% vs. 19%). Examples used of such imperative messaging included Greenpeace’s “Stop the catastrophe” and Denver Water’s “Use only what you need.”
According to Kronrod et al, “The drawbacks in assertive phrasing have been extensively documented by researchers in communications, consumer behavior, and psycholinguistics. The overwhelming evidence accumulated thus far is that assertiveness interacts with consumers’ drive for freedom in a counterpersuasive manner.” In other words, nobody wants to be told what to do unless they already intend to do it.
The good news: research shows that a softer approach, acknowledging the difficulty of compliance, or simply suggesting/encouraging a behavior choice instead of demanding it (“You could bike to work once a week” vs. “Bike to work once a week!”) is considerably more effective, because it recognizes the perceived conflict between personal agendas and public good.
Another effective approach when messaging an audience that’s less committed to an environmentally friendly agenda is to first elevate the importance of the issue before making any requests. Showing a film clip, or photos that highlight the importance of the given issue can do this. Once an issue is perceived as important, the audience is then more likely to be persuaded by assertive language.
This brings us to the flip side of these findings. For an audience that is already committed to the importance of an issue, softer language can be irritating, as the message is perceived to be out of line with the urgency felt.
My takeaway: it’s critical to align language to perception. The authors of this study note that it’s still unknown whether assertive language in green requests leads to long-term effects on behavior. Until then, we can at least meet people where they are for an immediate impact, without jeopardizing future credibility. What do you think??!!
Bonnie J. Wallace is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, specializing in responsible business. She holds a Sustainable MBA from Bainbridge Graduate Institute as well as a strong belief in business as a tool for transformation. When she’s not writing, Bonnie enjoys exploring ways that art can create community, and performing her supporting role as a stage mom.