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date: 23 April 2018

Portrayal and Impacts of Climate Change in Advertising and Consumer Campaigns

Summary and Keywords

Climate change specifically and the environment more generally are becoming increasingly central features in much of contemporary persuasive messages. From World Wildlife Fund public service announcements showing the Earth as a melting scoop of ice cream to advertisements for environmentally friendly hybrid cars set against backdrops of lush, green fields, climate change and the environment are closely linked to strategic communication and consumer behavior. This growing focus on the connection between climate change and consumption represents a wide and varied field of study, underscoring the ways in which the two can at once be symbiotic and yet also antagonistic.

Meaningful academic attention to environmental cues in advertising can be thought of as occurring in two waves. In the first wave, peaking in the 1990s, research was concerned primarily with content analyses of advertising containing environmental appeals. Questions about deceptive environmental claims, often referred to as greenwashing, were a primary concern during this phase. Climate change specifically was not a central element, and instead, issues of environmental preservation and conservation dominated. In the second wave, which emerged in the late 2000s and continues unabated, researchers have broadened their focus to examine not only how the environment was depicted in advertising messages but also how audiences understood them. Attention was paid to message factors, like framing, source cues, and visual depictions, as well as individual-level factors, such as environmental concern, political ideology and regulatory focus.

While concerns about greenwashing and deceptive advertising continue to plague green advertising, a collection of new critiques has emerged, including questions about the implications of emphasizing consumer behavior as a source of climate change mitigation, of relying on nature as a commodity to be sold and used, and of engaging individuals as consumers rather than as citizens in attempts to effect environmental change.

Keywords: green advertising, sustainability, greenwashing, climate change visuals, green consumption, environmental persuasion


Climate change specifically and the environment more generally are becoming increasingly central features in much of contemporary persuasive messages. From World Wildlife Fund public service announcements (PSAs) showing the Earth as a melting scoop of ice cream to advertisements for environmentally friendly hybrid cars set against backdrops of lush, green fields: climate change and the environment are closely linked to strategic communication and consumer behavior.

This growing focus on the connection between climate change and consumption represents a wide and varied field of study, underscoring the ways in which the two can at once be symbiotic, yet also antagonistic.

This article discusses persuasive communication’s growing reliance on environmental cues, like nature imagery, as a means of concretely communicating the broad, abstract concept of climate change. The first section starts with an overview of the role of the environment more broadly, and climate change specifically, in persuasive communication. Beginning with a discussion of consumption as a legitimate field of study, it provides a historical overview of the literature about advertising and climate change and discusses the trajectory of early studies looking at environmental connections. These early studies tended to view consumption and the marketplace as antagonistic to environmental values. This perspective was reflected in empirical work that was largely concerned with how the environment was depicted in persuasive messages and the threat of deceptive claims in environmental advertising, frequently referred to as greenwashing.

The second section of the article provides a framework for understanding contemporary research into climate change, the environment, and persuasive messages. It introduces key areas of recent research, and it maps out areas of contestation and future research. Of interest here is the attention paid to issues of sustainability along with a normative shift that sees the marketplace and consumer culture as more of an ally than an adversary.

As advertising’s attention to environmental issues evolved, the focus has rarely been directly on climate change, writ large. Climate change, as a complex, multifaceted collection of scientific and social issues, is difficult to communicate accurately and unambiguously (Linder, 2006). Rather than reference climate change directly or explicitly, advertising messages signal climate change indirectly via signifiers of climate change, its symptoms, and possible solutions. For example, the inclusion of environmental symbols, such as nature imagery (either pristine or ravaged), of green or brown hues, of leaves, grass and sunlight, stand in as concrete signifiers of climate change (Garland et al., 2013).

Advertising and Climate Change: Early Roots

Advertising and environmentalism’s close ties date back to the 1960s and the roots of the modern environmental movement, when advertising’s Howard Gossage teamed up with the Sierra Club’s David Brower to put together some of the first environmental campaign messages (Brower, n.d.). In an effort to stop the federal government’s plan to flood the Grand Canyon, the two created a series of full-page newspaper ads in 1966 that ran in the New York Times. The campaign was a call to arms encouraging concerned Americans to contact appropriate officials and lodge their disagreement with the dam proposal. The response was overwhelming, and the government nixed its plans. But more important for the study of environmental communication was the impact the ad had on environmental movements and the role of advertising and persuasive communication in environmental protection efforts (Lyndgaard, 2009). As a result of the ad campaign, the Sierra Club saw a dramatic boost in membership and financial donations, helping to galvanize American public concern about the environment and increase support for environmental protection (Brower, n.d.).

The ads were part of a larger shift in the environmental movement, helping to usher in a modern era of large-scale protection efforts, like the Clean Air Act and the Wilderness Act (CNN, 2008). Climate change was not yet on the environmental movement’s agenda, so ads focused on protection and conservation. Case in point: the 1971 Iron Eyes Cody public service announcement (CNN, 2008). Although the PSA’s efficacy has been questioned (Cialdini, 2003), the award-winning ad was effective in raising awareness about littering and has been credited with reducing litter by as much as 88 percent in some communities (Advertising Educational Foundation, 2003).

As the environmental movement evolved, so, too, did the persuasive messaging that supported it. During the 1960s and 1970s, the movement focused on large-scale efforts at regulation and legislation and saw success in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act, to name just two (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004). This institutional-focused approach suffered serious setbacks under Reagan’s policies of deregulation in the 1980s, but the green movement saw a resurgence in the 1990s following the Brundtland Commission’s publication of Our Common Future (Brundtland, 1987). The report introduced the idea of sustainable development, defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987, p. 43). Environmentalists, however, still focused on change at policy and institutional levels—to the detriment of the movement, according to some critics (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004). The environmental movement continued to focus on the manufacturing and industrial side of the equation, pushing to clean up industrial practices and enact better environmental standards, like automobile fuel efficiency standards. It was also a movement that was clearly politicized and allied itself with activism, as seen in groups like Greenpeace (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004).

Compared to the contemporary green movement, it was a stance that was much more adversarial and anti-consumption than the “postenvironmentalism” of the new millennium (Werbach, 2004). Contemporary environmentalists continue to have the same goals in mind—a cleaner planet and a smaller ecological footprint, for example—but industry and the marketplace are seen as potential partners in the battle. For example, the Sierra Club’s former president, Adam Werbach, has consulted with Wal-Mart on its efforts to promote sustainability within the corporation (Snider, 2008). Contemporary environmental movements like Greenpeace use consumption and advertising as leverage to enact broader ecological change, without challenging the underpinnings of consumption or capitalism (Katz-Kimchi & Atkinson, 2015). Change can be effected within the consumer culture at the level of the individual consumer. This emphasis on consumers and the potential positive side of consumption represents an important shift in focus, for both environmental movements and academics studying them (Snider, 2008; Werbach, 2004). First, it brings the study of consumption to the foreground, and second, it highlights advertising as an important vehicle of communication about sustainability, environmental protection and climate change (Maibach et al., 2008).

Connecting Climate Change and Consumption

As a topic of interest to theorists outside marketing and economics, scholarship into the positive aspects of consumption (and by extension the progressive aspects of advertising that might encourage positive forms of consumption) had remained largely in the shadows, in part, because consumption was not viewed as a legitimate field of study and because consumer behavior and social responsibility were viewed as a zero-sum game (Poster, 2004; Trentmann, 2007; Zukin & Maguire, 2004).

As Zukin and Maguire (2004) point out, classical sociologists of the 19th and 20th centuries either ignored or denigrated consumption. Marx saw consumption as a need induced by capitalism to sustain and legitimize the exploitation and alienation of labor. Durkheim suggested that if consumers were allowed to fulfill their unlimited material desires, the moral social order would be threatened. Veblen’s (1965 [1899]) study of the leisure class highlighted how social disparities were established and reinforced through conspicuous consumption. Bourdieu (1984 [1979]), building on Veblen’s ideas of conspicuous consumption, showed how the inequalities of social life are reproduced through consumption practices. And Galbraith (1958) argued that consumer desire is a largely false need fueled by producers and that the privileging of private consumption over public goods leads to a crumbling of the public sphere.

More contemporary scholarship has started to challenge this assumption. Using survey data, Keum and Shah (2005) have shown that prosocial consumption is positively related to civic and political engagement. And based on focus group interviews with prosocial consumers, Shaw, Newholm, and Dickinson (2006) have demonstrated that this kind of consumer behavior entails community-minded goals and helps build social capital.

The potential positive connections between consumer culture (including advertising) and prosocial outcomes is particularly noticeable in the area of sustainability and the potential for “better” consumer choices to serve environmental protection efforts and help mitigate the effects of climate change (Nisbet & Scheufele, 2009; Ockwell et al., 2009). Al Gore’s climate-change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, underscores this shift. The end of the movie urges audiences to help “save the world” by switching to energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs—essentially by consuming (Ray, 2011). Advertising is a central force in this relationship between consumption and social responsibility, and while the last few years have seen a surge in research examining the connections between persuasive communication, consumption, and climate change, this is not an entirely new empirical focus.

Advertising and Climate Change: The First Green Wave

The first significant wave of research into persuasive communication and environmental protection dates back to the late 1980s and early 1990s (Peattie & Crane, 2005). The energy crises of the 1970s, coupled with the growing environmental movement’s push for better regulation, helped motivate the marketplace, which responded with more environmentally friendly products. For example, in the 1980s, Volkswagen started testing solar-powered cars, Dupont began offering alternatives to chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants, and the Organic Valley co-op of organic farmers was formed (Fast Company, 2010). These developments were met with excitement from marketers and advertisers, who predicted a “green tide” of environmentally friendly products and green consumers in North America and Europe (Peattie & Crane, 2005; Prothero, 1990; Vandermerwe & Oliff, 1986). In the late 1980s, leading retailers, including Wal-Mart and K-Mart, carried out national advertising campaigns promoting their green in-store efforts to “help prevent lasting environmental problems” (Hume et al., 1989, p. 3). A flurry of green products appeared on the market. Between 1989 and 1990, green product introductions more than doubled, accounting for 11.4 percent of all new household products (Ottman, 1993). Advertising for these products also grew: between 1989 and 1990, green print ads grew by 430 percent, green TV ads by 367 percent (Ottman, 1993).

Initially, consumers responded enthusiastically. According to a 1989 study in Advertising Age, about 90 percent of consumers were not only willing to put in extra effort to buy products from companies trying to protect the environment, but they were also willing to pay more for them (Hume et al., 1989). Yet by the mid-1990s, this enthusiasm had waned (Peattie & Crane, 2005). A 1995 Mintel study not only showed a negligible increase in green consumers since 1990 but also revealed a pronounced gap among green consumers who reported concern about the environment but failed to follow through with their purchases (Mintel, 1995). Academic research at the time reflected this perspective and focused on two main areas: establishing a baseline understanding of how the environment was incorporated into persuasive communication, and examining green consumers and their attitudes.

As green products surged in the market, advertising aimed at promoting them also increased (Banerjee et al., 1995; Iyer et al., 1994). Despite this boom, empirical examinations lagged (Carlson et al., 1993; Iyer et al., 1994; Kangun et al., 1991), an exception being a 1995 special issue in the Journal of Advertising on the topic of green advertising (Zinkhan & Carlson, 1995). Research from that issue and others offers insight into the patterns and implications of advertising that draws on environmental cues.

Early Content Analyses of Environmental Cues in Advertising

Content analyses of ads in this first wave indicate that the majority of ads employed environmental claims focused on issues of preservation and pollution, rather than greenhouse gas emissions or climate change (Banerjee et al., 1995; Iyer & Banerjee, 1993; Iyer et al.,1994). This focus reflects a pre-global warming era, one in which the primary focus of environmental movements and government regulation was to push for cleaner air and water while preserving plant and animal wildlife. A longitudinal content analysis of green ads in National Geographic (Ahern et al., 2013) corroborates these patterns, showing that not until the 2000s did global warming and greenhouse gas reduction become a prevalent issue in green advertising.

Additionally, research indicates that the preponderance of ads with environmental claims relied on superficial or shallow green claims and reflected a corporate or manufacturer standpoint. For example, in a content analysis of 173 print ads (Iyer & Banerjee, 1993), the majority of green ads focused on promoting an environmental corporate image rather than a product’s environmental attributes and how they might mitigate environmental problems. These ads focused on promoting an environmentally friendly corporate image or describing positive steps a company was taking in the production phase of a product’s life cycle (i.e., careful use of natural resources) rather than on how consumers might use the product or dispose of it. Across the board, these appeals tended to avoid deep, meaningful environmental claims.

This was also true of broadcast advertising. In a content analysis of 95 TV ads employing environmental claims (Iyer et al., 1994), two-thirds of the ads were from manufacturers and producers, and the majority of products being promoted were the corporations themselves, that is, their brand names and images. For those ads that came from noncorporate sources, the majority were from nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Nature Conservancy. Unlike the corporate ads, these were much deeper in their green claims.

The picture looked quite different for corporate ads, for which most appeals were shallow or moderate, containing only limited environment-related information. Corporations—facing pressure from government regulation, consumers, and environmental groups—found themselves on the line, having to defend their dubious environmental bona fides, which they did in superficial, self-serving ways. “Changing consumer values and government regulations may have forced corporations to put on a new green face themselves and be consistent with the times” (Iyer et al., 1994, p. 296).

Additional content analyses of print ads of this same era echo these findings. In their study of 100 U.S. print ads, Carlson et al. demonstrated that the majority of ads relied on image claims to bolster the environmental impression of brands and companies and that the lion’s share of these claims were misleading or lacked substance (Carlson et al., 1993). In one of the few cross-cultural comparisons, Carlson et al. (1996) demonstrated that these weak, image-focused environmental ads were much more prevalent in American ads than in the ads from other English-speaking countries. Compared with ads from Canada, Australia and the UK, American ads contained fewer environmental claims and less evidence about the promoted product’s environmental virtues. The authors suggest that because U.S. ads tend to communicate less useful information about environmental benefits, these brands “may be creating the illusion of being ‘green’ when, in fact, they are not making significant contributions and improvements to the physical environment in terms of their products and production processes” (Carlson et al., 1996, p. 65). By way of explanation, the authors suggest that the green movement at the time was more advanced in other countries than in the United States (Piasecki & Asmus, 1990) and that unsubstantiated, weak claims would not be as effective in countries with more developed green movements. “Merely linking an organization with environmental facts or stressing commitment to the physical environment by supporting a green fund or association may not be very effective in demonstrating an environmental stance in countries where green movements have already taken hold” (Carlson et al., 1996, p. 66).

Climate Change and Advertising: Greenwashing or Legitimate Green Claims?

In the U.S. context, these weak, unsubstantiated claims elicited a backlash from consumers over what many perceived to be deceptive or misleading advertising claims (Crane, 2000; Kangun et al., 1991; Kilbourne, 1995). This consumer skepticism has a number of root causes, including reliance by advertisers on meaningless, often unregulated terms like “environmentally friendly,” “ozone friendly” and “degradable” and on claims that were hard to verify or evaluate (Kangun et al., 1991). One of the better-known misleading claims was that made by Hefty Trash Bags when it told consumers that its product was biodegradable but failed to disclose the fact that when buried in a landfill without exposure to sunlight or water—the typical condition for most garbage bags in landfills—the bags would not degrade (Watman, 1991; Welsh, 1993). “Some companies, in their eagerness to make ‘green’ claims, come perilously close to ‘deceptive intent’ in labels and advertising” (Goldemberg, 1991, p. 36)

A handful of studies sought to systematically measure the scale of this deceptive intent. Looking at a convenience sample of 100 print ads published in 1989 and 1990, Kangun et al. (1991) demonstrated that although outright lies or deceptive claims are rare, more than two-thirds of the analyzed ads either contained vague, ambiguous claims or omitted important information necessary for evaluating the claim’s truthfulness. This substantiates arguments made by Iyer, Banerjee, and colleagues that the majority of green claims were weak and superficial (Banerjee et al., 1995; Iyer & Banerjee, 1993; Iyer et al., 1994). Consumers reacted negatively to these misleading claims. According to one study, 90 percent of consumers found environmental advertising claims to be somewhat, not very, or not at all believable (Chase et al., 1992).

These superficial claims, along with their weak reception by consumers, can be attributed in part to the assumption and arguments underlying many of the messages. Kilbourne (1995) has argued that green advertising runs along a continuum from weaker environmental claims on one end to more substantial ecological claims on the other. Those ads on the environmental end tend to promote a business-as-usual stance, one that encourages consumption, views nature as a resource to be used and managed by humans, and assumes scientific and technological advances will resolve any environmental crises. On the other end, ecological ads challenge the status quo and the dominant social paradigm, promoting a radical and reformist stance that emphasizes ecocentrism rather than anthropocentrism. Kilbourne argued that the majority of advertising in the 1980s and 1990s resided on the weaker end of the continuum. By shying away from radical change, green advertising in this era failed to address the institutional and political root causes of the environmental crisis and instead focused on “symptoms” like pollution and ozone depletion (Kilbourne, 1995, p. 17).

A Green Revival: Advertising and Climate Change’s Second Wave

As a result, in part, of these misleading claims, the late 1990s saw a “backlash” against green advertising (Crane, 2000). This backlash was felt across domains, and as the 1990s drew to a close, “much of the early excitement regarding green marketing in the spheres of commerce, consumption and academia had clearly dissipated” (Crane, 2000, p. 277). It was not until the late 2000s that green advertising again became the focus of attention, from both practitioners and academics. Ahern et al.’s (2013) longitudinal study of green ads in National Geographic showed that green advertising reached a new high in 2008, surpassing previous peaks in 1980 and 1990. And in 2012, the Journal of Advertising revisited the theme of green advertising in a special issue on the topic (Sheehan & Atkinson, 2012).

This second wave of research into environmental cues in advertising represents a much more encompassing and theoretically broader line of inquiry. A central element that sets this wave apart from the first is the environmental movement’s focus on business and manufacturing as potential allies—rather than solely as adversaries—in mitigating climate change (Shellenberger & Nordhaus, 2004; Werbach, 2004). As a result, the inclusion of green clams in persuasive appeals grew. Longitudinal studies demonstrate that the overall occurrence of environmental claims in advertisements rose substantially in the 2000s (Gephart et al., 2011) and that these ads increasingly began turning their attention to climate change, energy independence, and greenhouse gas reduction (Ahern et al., 2013). This era also saw a rise in environmental cues in advertising beyond the dominant U.S. market. For example, in Japan, corporations began including environmental claims in their marketing communications in response to a growing green consumer segment (Ongkrutraksa, 2007).

In this second wave, advertisers and academics brought a more sophisticated eye to the creation and analysis of green advertising. Content analyses of environmentally themed ads show greater variety in terms of message factors (including source, appeals, and frames), and empirical studies sought greater understanding of how audiences interpreted green messages, for example, analyzing the role of visuals, social norms, political ideology, and other individual-level differences.

Greenwashing’s Persistent Dark Green Shadow

Compared with the first wave of green ads, those of the early 2000s tended to come almost exclusively from corporations. Whereas environmental groups like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund appeared in early green advertising (Iyer et al., 1994), they were largely missing from contemporary green advertising. In the early 21st century, nonprofits were fairly absent from green advertising and accounted for only 1.2 percent of green ads in a content analysis of magazine, television, and websites for women’s lifestyle programming (Atkinson & Kim, 2015). Similar findings were observed in green ads in National Geographic (Ahern et al., 2013). Consistent with the first wave, most contemporary green ads continued to be image focused (Atkinson & Kim, 2015; Segev et al., 2016), paying attention to the brand or corporate image rather than specific product- or process-oriented details.

Although some studies show that green advertising claims had improved in terms of substance and clarity (Segev et al., 2016), the preponderance of evidence seems to suggest misleading and deceptive claims continue to plague the advertising genre. As concerns about climate change gathered support among the public, many companies sought to include sustainability into their corporate fabric and viewed environmental sustainability as an important component of their corporate social responsibility (Signitzer & Prexl, 2008). While many companies were sincere in these efforts, countless others jumped on the green bandwagon with responses that amounted to little more than greenwashing (Baum, 2012). A cross-platform content analysis of green ads in print, TV, and online showed that the majority of ads relied on superficial claims, mostly image-focused, that lacked evidence or substantive claims to back them up (Atkinson & Kim, 2015). Many of these ads also relied on executional devices, such as the color green or natural imagery, to reinforce the idea of “greenness” without any actual environmental claims (Atkinson & Kim, 2015).

In a comparative study of green ads in British and American print magazines, the data indicate that while deceptive and misleading claims appeared in half the British ads, three-quarters of the U.S. ads contained misleading and deceptive claims (Baum, 2012). The most common kind of deceptive claim was what is classified as a “lesser of two evils” claim (TerraChoice, 2011). This is a claim that might be true but distracts the consumer from the larger environmental impact of the product. For example, an ad promoting a fuel-efficient SUV might be factually correct but ignores the fact that SUVs, even fuel-efficient ones, are much less efficient than other vehicles or even other modes of transportation (Baum, 2012).

This high volume of misleading and deceptive green claims in the United States comes despite efforts by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2010, the FTC revised its guidelines, commonly known as the Green Guides, on the use of environmental marketing claims (Atkinson, 2013a; Segev et al., 2016). The guidelines encourage advertisers to avoid misleading, vague terms (like environmentally friendly) and to be transparent in their claims (i.e., whether a biodegradable product will actually degrade under real-world conditions). The FTC, however, has no enforcement power, which means that compliance by advertisers is strictly voluntary (Baum, 2012). In addition, unlike the case in other countries like the UK and Australia, advertising in the United States is protected speech under the First Amendment, severely limiting the FTC’s ability to regulate environmental claims in advertising (Collins & Skover, 1993).

This pattern of deceptive and misleading green claims is not unique to U.S. ads. Taking a global look at green ads targeted at a multinational audience, Leonidou and colleagues found similar patterns among green ads in the international magazine The Economist. Those with “deep” green claims were more likely to be detailed, authentic and substantive, whereas those ads with “weak” green claims were more likely to be superficial, even deceptive. However, work by Karna et al. offers a point of departure. In a study of prints ads put out by the Finnish forest industry (Karna et al., 2001), deceptive and misleading claims were less prevalent in Finnish ads than in American ads. Although some environmental claims were found to be weak, the majority reflected a sincere environmental focus within the forest industry.

Less attention has been paid to green advertising in transitional and developing economies, in part because consumers in these countries are seen as less aware of or less interested in the potential salutary connection between climate change and consumerism (Earnhart et al., 2014; Sandhu et al., 2010). That being said, a handful of cross-cultural studies yield a limited picture of green advertising in developing and transitional economies, a picture that is very similar to green advertising trends elsewhere. For example, looking at India, where companies are starting to see the market advantage of sustainability, a content analysis of 215 green print ads (Fernando et al., 2014) showed the majority came from the manufacturing sector and that the most common type of appeal was an image-oriented one. Across the sample as a whole, the majority employed shallow green claims, and more than half constituted deceptive or misleading claims, for example by relying on ambiguous terms like “pro-planet” or “eco-friendly” (Fernando et al., 2014). As with green ads in the United States (Atkinson & Kim, 2015), these green ads in India relied on executional devices like the color green or nature imagery as a heuristic for environmental bona fides.

Visualizing Climate Change and the Environment in Persuasive Messages

Indeed, the reliance on certain visual approaches to depicting climate change in advertising has a significant impact on audience attitudes and behaviors. The way the environment is described has important consequences for how the public understands “nature,” what constitutes appropriate consumption and use of the environment, and how we come to understand environmental problems and their solutions (Doyle, 2007; Hansen, 2002; Linder, 2006; Urry, 1992; Williams, 1975). In dominant discourse, nature has variously been understood as something that is either pristine, wild, or threatened and as something that must be either protected, exploited, or conserved (Hansen, 2002).

Despite early attention in the first wave of research looking at the environment in advertising, few to no empirical studies examined how nature itself was visually depicted. One of the first to do so looked at TV ads broadcast on British television in 2000. Hansen’s (2002) content analysis revealed that of 467 ads that appeared on British TV, none of them contained an explicitly environmental message (i.e., recycle) but more than a quarter of them still included depictions of the environment. The most common portrayal of nature was as a pleasant place to be and as something that is intrinsically good. In none of the ads was nature depicted as fragile, threatened, or something to be protected (Hansen, 2002). Despite attention in news media to crises facing the environment, advertising itself tended to avoid that message. Instead, discourse about the environment and the natural world presented it as a source of enjoyment, authenticity, and purity but not as a threatened space that needed our protection.

Taking a similar critical approach, Corbett (2002) has argued that advertising messages that rely on environmental imagery (regardless of whether the ad promotes an environmental message) turn nature into a commodity to be consumed. Nature is simultaneously presented in a simplified way as sublime, simple, and unproblematic, while also serving as a backdrop, as a source of utility, and as a benefit to humans (Corbett, 2002).

Visual depictions of climate change specifically, and not just of the environment in general, suggest a number of dominant discourses. While most of these studies examine informative messages, primarily newspaper coverage of climate change, a handful have explored visual depictions in advertising and marketing content (O’Neill & Smith, 2014). Relying on focus group data from British audiences, O’Neill et al. demonstrated that while fearful, apocalyptic images of climate change are captivating and effective at drawing attention, they can undermine feelings of efficacy and personal salience (O’Neill & Smith, 2014). In one content analysis of stock images provided by Getty Images, the largest global photography clearinghouse, climate change is depicted in a decontextualized way. Images are not bound to specific locations or time periods and when people were included they were portrayed as types rather than individuals (Hansen & Machin, 2008). The implications of this kind of climate change discourse, which reimagines climate change in conceptual abstract terms rather than concrete natural images, are important and serve to distance audiences from the everyday reality of climate change and consumption (Hansen & Machin, 2008; O’Neill & Smith, 2014).

Hartmann and Apaolaza-Ibáñez (2009) have argued that environmental imagery works to create a virtual nature experience that engenders positive affect toward products advertised using pleasant natural imagery. Specifically, the authors demonstrated that for Spanish consumers, ads that depicted lush green landscapes yielded more positive affect, were associated with more positive attitudes toward the ad, and elicited greater audience memory and recall than images of urban environments or environments free of vegetation (Hartmann & Apaolaza-Ibáñez, 2009, 2010, 2012; Hartmann et al., 2013).

Not all studies reveal a positive association with natural images in persuasive messages. For example, in an experiment comparing executional elements in advertisements for cars, the inclusion of basic environmental heuristics, such as the image of a forest and green background color, was shown to mislead French consumers about an advertised product’s ecological image (Parguel et al., 2015). The effects of these “executional greenwashing” devices were even more pronounced among those who knew less about cars and carbon emissions.

Beyond Greenwashing: Message-level Factors in Green Advertising

In addition to content analyses exploring how environmental cues are portrayed in advertising and the degree to which the messages are deceptive or misleading, contemporary research into environmental cues in advertising built substantially on limited first-wave studies looking at the different kinds of appeals that dominated. Research in mass communication in general has demonstrated that the way environmental issues are framed has considerable bearing on how audiences understand, process, and react to environmental messages (Nisbet, 2009). This is no less true of climate change and persuasive communication.

Although issues like climate change are viewed with consensus by the scientific community, they are often conveyed to the general public via different, sometimes competing frames or perspectives. Nisbet and colleagues have shown how these frames help organize the central ideas about an issue, giving preference to some elements and not others (Nisbet, 2010; Nisbet & Scheufele, 2007, 2009; Nisbet & Newman, 2015). In the case of climate change, prominent frames in news reports variously emphasize economic hardship (highlighting the financial burdens that will transpire as a result of restrictive legislation or regulation), scientific uncertainty (emphasizing inconsistencies and ambiguities in research), and crisis or a Pandora’s box of catastrophes (stressing the cataclysmic disasters that will transpire if nothing is done to stem climate change). These frames influence how individuals react to the information, helping to determine levels of support, knowledge, and concern. Often, the alarmist or negative undertone of these frames can be debilitating or paralyzing by emphasizing a lack of alternatives or the futility of doing anything (Moser & Dilling, 2004; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009).

Framing Climate Change in Persuasive Messages

Advertising that draws on environmental cues also relies on a variety of different frames. The literature has identified three common frames in environmental communication: gain/loss, current generation/future generations, and taking less/doing more (Ahern et al., 2013; Bortree et al., 2012; Davis, 1995). First, gain/loss frames focus on the nature of the problem, emphasizing outcomes as either negative occurrences or positive occurrences (Ahern et al., 2013; Davis, 1995; Newman et al., 2012). For example, in a message promoting recycling, a negatively framed message would associate not recycling with damage to the Earth, while a positively framed message would connect recycling with saving the Earth. Negatively framed outcomes are shown to be more cognitively involving and tend to be perceived as more salient, vivid, and consequential compared to positively framed outcomes (Davis, 1995).

Second, current generation/future generations framing emphasizes the target of the outcomes in terms of temporal closeness or distance of the consequences of climate change. Construal level theory argues that the same persuasive message will be understood differently, depending on how psychologically distant the outcomes are (Trope & Liberman, 2010). Although distance can be temporal, spatial, or social, most studies of environmental communication have focused on temporal distance and on whether climate change’s effects will be felt in the near future or several generations down the line (Chang et al., 2015). Environmental messages that highlight personal salience tend to elicit stronger outcomes (Cantrill, 1993; Swap, 1991). Davis (1995) has shown that messages emphasizing environmental impacts on current generations are more effective at encouraging responsible behaviors, like recycling.

Third, taking less/doing more framing focuses on the proposed environmentally responsible behavior or action and can be thought of as either restraint (i.e., not using resources) or active contribution (i.e., recycling) (Swap, 1991). Ahern et al.’s content analysis (2013) explored each of these three framing types. The study showed that frames focusing on gains (rather than losses), current generation (rather than future generations), and doing more (rather than taking less) dominated the green ads in the sample and that over the 30-year time frame of the study, the gain frame and doing more frame became more prevalent. Looking more closely at the kind of entity sponsoring the ad reveals that corporations were more likely to focus on gain frames, whereas advocacy groups were more likely to focus on loss frames.

Experimental research has shed light on individual audience factors that influence which different frames are likely to be more effective. For example, concern about climate change has a moderating effect on gain and loss frames. Those who show low levels of concern are more likely to buy environmentally friendly products, engage in sustainable consumption lifestyles, and vote for legislation that supports sustainability efforts when a negatively framed message is used (Newman et al., 2012). For those who report high levels of concern about global warming, the message frame does not have a significant impact.

These patterns echo earlier findings (Obermiller, 1995) that demonstrate the influence of issue salience or concern on individual’s perceived consumer efficacy, or the belief that their consumption choices can positively impact the environment. For those issues that are less important, individuals respond better to a “sick baby” appeal, or one that presents the issue as severe, threatening, and important. But for those issues that have high personal salience, a “well baby” appeal is better—that is, an appeal that highlights the problem but emphasizes the individual’s ability to solve it.

In an examination of the moderating effect of construal level on gain/loss frames (Chang et al., 2015), it was found that persuasive messages were deemed more effective, yielding greater ad liking and purchase intentions, when loss frames were paired with current outcomes and when gain frames were paired with future outcomes. Taking into account environmental concern reveals that these congruency effects generally hold only for those who are concerned about the environment.

Social Norms and Climate Change Advertising

Another important element in persuasive environmental communication has to do with social norms (Cialdini, 2003; Maibach et al., 2008). Past studies on pro-environmental behavior indicate that social norms are powerful moderators in the context of, for example, reusing bathroom towels in hotel rooms or adopting energy-efficient habits at home (Goldstein et al., 2008; Schultz et al., 2007). In the context of advertising and other persuasive messages, social norms are viewed as a potentially powerful way to motivate consumers to act in ways that mitigate climate change (Schultz et al., 2007, 2008). However, it is important to understand which kinds of social norms are activated and how (Cialdini, 2003).

The logic of social norms argues that there are two kinds of social rules: descriptive and injunctive (Cialdini, 2003). Descriptive norms refer to those behaviors that individuals typically carries out, whereas injunctive norms describe those behaviors that are perceived as being approved or disapproved. Both norms motivate people but not necessarily in the desired prosocial direction. Cialdini (2003) cites the 1971 PSA for Keep America Beautiful, often referred to as the Crying Indian Ad or Iron Eyes Cody Ad as a case in point. The ad depicts a Native American coming face to face with a sea of litter and waste; the ad’s tagline is “People start pollution; People can stop it.” The injunctive norm broadcast via the ad is that people should not pollute. But as Cialdini argues, the ad also conveys a descriptive norm that littering and pollution are actually very common. In a series of experiments, Cialdini and colleagues demonstrated empirically that when persuasive messages emphasize injunctive norms—that we should recycle, that we should not litter, that we should protect the environment—individuals are more likely to comply (Cialdini, 2011; Cialdini et al., 1990, 2006).

This is not to say that descriptive norms cannot be effective. When aligned with injunctive norms, they can be successful. In a series of field experiments looking at persuasive messaging surrounding energy consumption and hotel towel use, research has shown that descriptive norms (what people are doing) can augment injunctive norms (what people ought to be doing). When a persuasive message encouraging hotel guests to reuse their towels incorporated a statement that the majority of guests that stayed in that same room had also reused their towels, compliance increased (Goldstein et al., 2008; Schultz et al., 2008).

Audience Factors and Persuasive Climate Change Messages

In addition to framing and other executional aspects of message design, audience-level factors, including regulatory focus and values such as political ideology, have been shown to affect the outcomes of persuasive environmental messages.

Regulatory Focus and Environmental Persuasion

Regulatory focus theory argues that individuals are goal driven but differ in the way they approach those goals (Higgins, 1987). Promotion-focused individuals are motivated by what could be gained and by achieving a particular state, such as plant and animal conservation; whereas prevention-focused people are concerned with avoiding problems and with minimizing losses, such as plant and animal devastation (Shah et al., 1998). Regulatory focus theory proposes that when the orientation to the goal and the means used to achieve it are aligned, then there is a feeling of regulatory fit, which increases task engagement and the perceived value of the goal (Higgins, 2000, 2005). Regulatory fit can be chronic but can also be momentarily primed.

In the area of environmental attitudes, a chronic promotion focus has been shown to positively predict environmental concern, whereas a chronic prevention focus does not (Bhatnagar & McKay-Nesbitt, 2016). Similar patterns hold for primed regulatory focus. When presented with ads promoting recycling and reducing, primed promotion focus yielded more positive attitudes toward the recommended green behavior and greater likelihood of following through on the recommended behavior (Bhatnagar & McKay-Nesbitt, 2016). Additionally, both chronic and primed promotion focus yielded more positive affect toward the self as a result of intentions to engage in pro-environmental ad recommendations. These patterns suggest that advertising messages can be effective at priming a promotion focus to foster green behaviors. Specifically, the authors argue that promotion-focused ads emphasizing environmental achievements and green outcomes might offer better prospects than prevention-focused ads that put a premium on responsibilities and preventing negative outcomes (Bhatnagar & McKay-Nesbitt, 2016).

These findings are qualified by studies demonstrating the moderating effect of environmental concern (Newman et al., 2012). In a comparison of ads that incorporated either a prevention-focused message (i.e., “Prevent an unhealthy natural environment”) or a promotion-focused message (i.e., “Enjoy a healthier natural environment”), the prevention focus was more effective at encouraging consumption of sustainable products and adopting a green lifestyle among those low in environmental concern, whereas among those high in environmental concern, both message types were likely to be effective (Newman et al., 2012). Given that concern for climate change varies across different populations—for example, in the United States fewer than two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is happening and only half think climate change is worrisome (Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 2014)—being able to target effective message frames at those who are least concerned likely offers the most promise of bringing about sustainable behaviors.

Political Ideology and Persuasive Climate Change Messages

One of the most powerful individual-level factors affecting environmentalism and belief in climate change is political ideology. Belief that climate change is happening, that it is caused mostly by humans, and that mitigating it requires broad-reaching policy support is felt more strongly by liberals and Democrats than by conservatives and Republicans (Dunlap et al., 2010; Feygina et al., 2009; McCright & Dunlap, 2011). Although these patterns are more pronounced in the U.S. context, they carry over to other countries. In Australia, liberal politicians were more likely to believe in climate change than conservatives (Fielding et al., 2012). The same held true for individuals in Britain (Poortinga et al., 2011).

One explanation for this fractured view is that most messaging around climate change tends to focus on moral and ideological appeals, which hold greater sway with liberals than with conservatives (Feinberg & Willer, 2013; Kidwell et al., 2013). Feinberg and Willer (2013) found that PSAs were more likely to be structured in a way that resonated with liberals’ moral foundations, such as the harm/care domain of human morality, or concerns about caring for and protecting other people (Graham et al., 2009).

This message framing is not insignificant in terms of how audiences process them. Across several experiments, political ideology and conservative values have been shown to hold influence over the way persuasive environmental messages are received and acted upon. For example (Feinberg & Miller, 2013), the tendency for conservatives to report lower levels of environmental concern than liberals was largely eliminated when pro-environmental persuasive messages were framed in terms of purity and sanctity, two values that have been shown to resonate more with conservatives (Graham et al., 2009). In more explicitly consumerist messages, aligning language with conservative morals, such as in-group loyalty, respect for authority and patriotism, was shown to increase conservatives’ intentions to recycle and engage in conservation behaviors (Feygina et al., 2009; Kidwell et al., 2013). Similarly, in public service announcements designed to elicit concern for the environment, framing the message according to in-group loyalty increased concern about climate change among conservatives to levels similar to liberals and boosted willingness among conservatives to donate money to the Environmental Defense Fund even more so than among liberals (Wolsko et al., 2016).

In addition to moral framing, messages framed in terms of different benefits also elicit different responses according to political ideology. Messages seeking to promote conservation among household energy consumers were more effective among liberals when framed according to environmental benefits (i.e., carbon emission reduction) rather than economic benefits (i.e., saving money) (Xu et al., 2015). Similarly, Gromet, Kunreuther, and Larrick (2013) demonstrated that conservatives are less interested in investing in energy efficiency than liberals, a fact the researchers attributed to conservatives’ lower psychological value placed on environmental values and carbon emission reduction. This value orientation also meant conservatives were less likely to buy an environmentally friendly light bulb when it was labeled as such than when it contained no green product labeling, suggesting conservatives were willing to assume “a long-term financial cost to avoid purchasing an item associated with valuing environmental protection” (Gromet et al., 2013, p. 9317).

Taken together, these studies indicate that values are an important driver of environmentally friendly behaviors and that framing persuasive messages in ways that are congruent with these values is more likely to increase green consumption behaviors and pro-environmental attitudes.

Bringing a Critical Lens to Advertising and Climate Change

From the first wave of studies looking at environmental cues in advertising to the current state of green advertising research, there has been a meaningful shift in the locus of responsibility and the realm of action. The early phase of green advertising reflected a particular mix of environmental movement concerns and government regulation that positioned advertisers and manufacturers as adversaries, as being part of the problem and having no real role to play in finding the solution. But content analyses of the second wave suggest that this perspective changed markedly. Contemporary green advertising has come to reflect the strategic shift taking place in the larger environmental movement, a shift away from change sought just at the policy and institutional level and instead pursued at the level of individual consumers and their marketplace choices as well. Environmental change is less about political allegiances and activism and more about building sustainability into the corporate and consumer domains. Green advertising speaks to this shift by promoting green product benefits and attributes, particularly in the area of fast-moving consumer goods (Atkinson & Kim, 2015).

And yet this shift comes with a number of implications. First, the advertising continues to rely on persuasive claims that are vague and potentially misleading (Atkinson, 2013a; Atkinson & Kim, 2015; Baum, 2012). Rather than relying on established, verifiable evidence, such as the kind conveyed through an eco-label like USDA organic, the majority of green advertisers are incorporating meaningless, unregulated claims, such as being “100% natural” or “from nature.” These claims might appear authentically green, and data suggest consumers often interpret them that way, but they may be more obfuscating than illuminating (Atkinson & Kim, 2015). Unsubstantiated claims of being “eco-friendly” or “from Mother Nature” fail to offer consumers verifiable, reliable evidence of greenness. In so doing, they fall precariously close to being classified as greenwashing and deceptive.

Second, the focus on the consumer as the agent of change puts the onus on individual consumers, rather than industry as a whole, to seek ecological balance; the responsibility lies more with resolving issues of consumption rather than production. “Although a few narratives mention government’s regulatory role in mitigation, most speak to individuals’ personal culpability and assign responsibility for remedial actions (such as energy conservation) to them, rather than to industrial sources” (Linder, 2006, p. 103). As a result, it promotes consumption as a solution to climate change, when in reality excessive consumption has been part of the root problem.

Third, the framing of climate change solutions in terms of making “better” or “smarter” marketplace decisions constructs the issue in a way that focuses attention on consumption and not on other aspects. This framing is not inconsequential. The way issues are discussed and presented is instrumental in developing public understanding of the climate change debate (Marissa et al., 2011). By limiting it to a question of appropriate consumer choices, other means of resolving climate change are pushed to the side (Katz-Kimchi & Atkinson, 2014). Consumption is highlighted as the most effective means of ecological change, at the expense of extensive reform at the political, economic, or institutional level (Grant, 2011; Kurz et al., 2010). “By promoting what is often called ‘weak’ or economistic ecological reform, the status quo is maintained. Rather than relying on strong interventions and radical shifts in lifestyle, consumer-based environmental change is seen as compatible with, rather than antagonistic to, continuing economic growth and lifestyles of consumption” (Katz-Kimchi & Atkinson, 2014, p. 770).

Fourth, and related to the previous critique, is the implication that individuals are responsible for climate change in their capacity as consumers and not in their capacity as citizens. The preponderance of persuasive environmental messages speaks to audiences in their role as shopper, not as members of the public sphere. Ads that incorporate climate change messages exhort their audiences to shop, to consume, to acquire; rarely do they call on audiences to challenge, to protest, to invert the status quo. Instead, “a person’s ecological footprint, based largely on their consumption choices, represents the means through which individuals ought to enact their ecological citizenship and focus on the responsibilities they have to others” (Katz-Kimchi & Atkinson, 2014, p. 770). This leaves out the vital work individuals do as citizens and instead positions people as more individualized, passive and isolated. Unlike citizens, who are active in shaping society, consumers “simply choose between the products on display” (Lewis et al., 2005, p. 6).

Finally, highlighting the role of consumption in efforts to mitigate climate change does little to critique the logic of consumption and may actually serve to increase those less than prosocial orientations like materialism. A study by Griskevicius et al. (2010) demonstrates that individuals are more likely to buy green products when they are deemed “luxurious” or when the act of consumption is conspicuously public. Green consumption has an element of prestige that allows consumers to project a high-status image. As well, per Corbett’s critique (2002), advertising is fundamentally about supporting capitalism and materialism, which themselves can be antagonistic to environmental protection. When public goods like nature are used to sell commodities produced by private corporations, the net effect is to promote an anthropocentric, narcissistic relationship to the environment, one that treats public entities like the environment as private ones that can be consumed, owned, and privatized (Corbett, 2002).

Future Directions

In addition to continuing to explore how climate change is depicted in green advertising via content analyses and the threat of deceptive or misleading environmental claims, it is important to examine those still relatively less explored areas. For example, what role do emotions play in connecting consumers to persuasive climate change appeals? While some research has examined the impact of fear appeals on climate change communication generally (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009), less attention has been paid to the role of positive emotions, such as hope and happiness (Chadwick, 2015).

Second, as evidenced by the limited body of existing research, the field would do well to expand its cross-cultural understanding of green advertising. How is climate change depicted in advertising in transitional and developing economies? What similarities and differences are apparent in both message appeals and audiences? There is also a need for more comprehensive research examining the role of climate change in advertising in developed countries. The preponderance of research has focused on the U.S. context; yet issues of sustainability and climate change mitigation are important for consumers in other developed economies as well (Pagiaslis & Krontalis, 2014).

Third, what opportunities and challenges do social media offer for persuasive messages relying on climate change appeals? Although considerable research exists examining advertising in general in social media venues, little work has explored the role of green advertising on, for example social networking sites and mobile apps (Atkinson, 2013b; Minton et al., 2012), and even less on climate change advertising on social media.

Finally, given the power of political ideology to influence American audiences and their processing of climate change-focused persuasive messages, it would be useful to extend these studies to other contexts. Research indicates that political ideology plays an important role in attitudes toward climate change in countries like Australia and the UK. Yet little to no research has examined how these patterns of political ideology in other developed countries influence the processing of persuasive messages that incorporate environmental cues.

As mean global temperatures continue to rise (NASA, 2016), climate change and environmental appeals will continue to be fixtures in persuasive communication; yet much more remains to be understood about them (Taylor, 2015).


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