Facing death to make you change your behavior in the face of climate risks: is fear in advertising a recipe that still works?

The tropical storm, Irma, which recently raged in the United States has once again brought to the fore the dire consequences of climate change. For a very large number of people, the succession of worldwide natural disasters (tsunami, hurricane, storm…)—more frequent and violent—is necessarily linked to climate change. Many voices are rising to denounce the public policies and individual consumer practices that contribute to a growing production of the carbon emissions at the origin of global warming.


An example of an ad by WWF

Are we all condemned to die though? Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) want to believe in the opposite: raising awareness of this problem among the general public is essential! One way to get there is advertising and the use of fear appeals—lots of them—to make individuals change their behaviors! This is how most pro-environmental advertising on climate change confronts us to our own finiteness: WWF, Greenpeace, and ARPA multiply shocking ads to capture our attention and shock our consciences (I invite you to see some examples).

In this context, Hussein Akil, Philippe Robert-Demontrond and Julien Bouillé, in an article recently published in Recherche et Applications en Marketing[1], invite us to ask a question that can be described as “vital”: are these ads on climate change really effective?

The effectiveness of the current communication strategies on climate change remains debatable!

The authors carried out an experimental study with 132 subjects to test the influence of the type of communication (anxiety-inducing vs. informative) on consumption choices (pro-materialistic vs. pro-environmentalist). They show how the creative strategies of NGOs are counterproductive. Confronted with anxiety-inducing messages—that is, messages that emphasize mortality, and ultimately signal our own finiteness—the individuals who value pro-material values are led to consume more to reduce their anxiety, which goes against the purpose of the message on climate change.

The role of consumer profiles remains key

Without giving a Manichean view of the world, the authors show that anxiety-inducing communication strategies are more effective for consumers who display a cultural worldview turned toward ecology; the tradeoffs they will make in favor of the environment will reduce the anxiety induced by the communications that confront them with a risk of death. However, pro-materialistic individuals will be insensitive to the message, which will further reinforce their need to consume. An informative communication is thus more adapted to this profile, pushing them more to adopt a pro-environmental consumption behavior.

In conclusion, we can only thank the authors for coming up with one solution to our “survival”; one that comes from a better public awareness to climate change and an adaptation of the creative strategy to the profile of consumers. Let’s hope that the actors involved in the fight against climate change will seize the conclusions of this research to design truly effective communications with regard to the target audiences.

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