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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lessons From The World Of Advertising

"In terms of the sustainability challenges we are facing, some would argue that the advertising industry has played a big part in getting us into this mess, through it’s role in promoting materialism and ego-driven consumption. (Clive Hamilton is a particularly strong advocate of this position).

A vigorous debate on this issue was sparked by an article published by WWF in the UK.Common Cause took the position that we need to be influencing what people value, and promoting more long-term, socially responsible thinking, rather than using the same techniques as marketers to “sell” sustainability to people.

Regardless of whether you think it is the problem, or part of the solution, advertising wields a powerful influence on our behaviour. There are, therefore, some useful lessons which we can take from the advertising industry and apply to our efforts to promote sustainability as a way of life. Here are a few of those tactics.

Building Trust
Advertisers place a lot of emphasis on building a trusted brand. As discussed in the April 2010 edition of Wake-Up Call, trust is a combination of belief that the advertiser can deliver, that they have our best interests at heart, and that they adhere to a set of principles we consider ethical. You will see many advertisers trying to squeeze all those elements into a 30 second commercial.

Those trying to spread the message of climate change have a problem with trust, as a report by the American Psychological Association discusses. The report highlights evidence that many people mistrust the messages of scientists and governments, and that “behavior change requires that one trusts others not to take advantage and that the change is effective, valuable, and equitable (p 126)”. Sustainability advocates would therefore be wise to ensure that these principles of trust are demonstrated in any communication designed to influence the audience’s attitudes and behaviour.

Speaking To Our Values
One of the keys to promoting a product or behaviour is to demonstrate how it will satisfy the values of the audience. Is family your priority? This car will keep them safe. Convenience? This fast food place will ensure “dinner is sorted”.

The key to appealing to values in your communication is to identify what your audience really cares about. This can be done through some initial research if possible. If not, you may need to use common sense. If you can show how something will save or make money, you will get people’s attention. Otherwise, a sense of family is among the most common core values held by the majority of people. If you can demonstrate how your offering will make a family safer or better looked after now or in the future, people will listen. See this Victorian Worksafe advertisement for an example of the family value being used to get across the safety message.

Using Social Norms
The effect of social norms relates to our desire to do what others are doing. In an effort to appear normal or up with the play, we are surprisingly strongly influenced by what we perceive to be the way in which others are acting.

There is growing body of evidence supporting the strength of social norms, including this study which showed that householders were more influenced by a flyer which demonstrated others were saving energy, than by one which showed how they could save money, the environment or benefit society by reducing their energy consumption. Interesting, this and other studies found that people rarely recognise their behaviour was influenced by what others are doing, even though the research clearly shows that this was the key factor.

Promoting products and behaviours using social norms is a matter of embedding messages and images to imply that the audience has the opportunity to be part of a growing trend, or simply that they would be conforming and more normal, if they were to follow your advice. “Green is the new black” is a common catch-cry designed to invoke the power of social norms.

Creating Cognitive Dissonance
One of the central principles of change is that we need to feel some dissatisfaction with our current state in order to change. If everything is OK now, there is no need to change. So the job of advertisers, and other change agents, is to convince us that some need, or value, is not being met.

Such a communication involves a number of elements. Firstly, it needs to get our attention and get us to care, preferably by tapping into our values (see above). Then it needs to somehow show that thing we value is at risk, or can be achieved better. The state of feeling a gap between what you value, and what you are doing or experiencing, is know as “cognitive dissonance” and is a powerful motivator for change. Finally, the communication needs to show that your offering will reduce this risk, or more fully satisfy this need. This simple Youtube ad for a swine flu remedy demonstrates all these elements.

Using the principle of cognitive dissonance to influence people demands that all three of these elements need to be present. If you show something at risk that is not valued by the audience, they are less likely to be alarmed and compelled to act. If you tap into their values, but they feel those values are being satisfied already, they will not be seeking a solution. And finally, if you create the need, but don’t offer a realistic solution, you have missed an opportunity to engage people in change."


You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:

Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability.  Visit for more info


  1. This is great. Well-organized and direct.

    It's so encouraging to happen upon Christians with a passion for Environmentalism. Very refreshing. Are there many of you in Aussie land? We could sure use some more Stateside.

  2. Thanks. We could all use some more Christian Environmentalists. The church greening movement here in Australia is less established than yours in the US, so there aren't a huge number of us. We do have some really keen people doing absolutely fantastic things in pockets around the country though. One of the great things the Five Leaf Eco-Awards does is bring them all together a bit and help to create connections.

    I will continue to pray that both our countries will have a boom in Christians with a passion for the environment in the near future.


Important Lessons from the Bible

Why Jesus came:
"that the world might be saved through him"
John 3:17

Who Jesus is going to use to save the world:
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God."
Romans 8:19

Our role on earth:
"The LORD God put the man in the Garden of Eden to take care of it and to look after it."
Genesis 2:15

The Five Pillars of A Christian Theology of Sustainability

1. God is the creator, sustainer and redeemer of creation.

2. Covenantal Stewardship (we have a covenant with God as stewards of the earth).

3. The creation-fall-redemption paradigm (God made a good world; human failure broke the relationships between god, man and creation; Christ provides hope for all creation).

4.Bodily resurrection(we will rise with bodies, not as spirits)

5.New Creation (a new Heaven and new Earth refers to a renewal and an earthing of heaven, not starting over).

Adapted from When Enough is Enough: A Christian Framework for Environmental Sustainability, Edited by R.J. Berry, Published by Inter-Varsity Press, 2007, Nottingham p43+