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How To Persuade A Conservative To Buy Green? Don't Tell Them It's Green

Despite the clear cost benefits of being more energy efficient, many conservatives won’t buy in to something so closely associated with the liberal agenda. To get around that requires some marketing tricks.

It remains a mystery why energy efficiency isn’t more popular. Given the provable savings of investing in things like home insulation and higher mpg cars, you might think that the whole country would be banging on the door to get its share.

Turns out that energy efficiency remains a hard sell as much for political and cultural reasons as economic ones. Simply put: people are more likely to embrace energy savings if they have a "liberal" political outlook, and identify with a Democratic party agenda. The question is why, and what marketers of energy efficient products can do about it.

Research by Dena Gromet and Howard Kunreuther at the Wharton School and Rick Larrick at Duke University shows that marketing based around monetary incentives or energy independence may play better than appealing to environmental issues. In particular, messaging around climate change is the least effective, studies shows.

The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, they asked 657 adults aged 19 to 81 the relative value they placed on reducing CO2, energy independence, and how much energy costs (for them). By a significant margin, more conservative participants were less likely to see efficiency as a priority.

"More politically conservative individuals are less in favor of investing in energy efficiency than are those who are more politically liberal, a finding driven primarily by the polarized psychological valuation of carbon emissions reduction," the paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says.

Following the first experiment, the researchers wondered if labeling a product as "environmental" would actually deter buyers of a particular persuasion. They found that it could. Working with 210 participants, aged 18 to 66, they offered two lightbulbs: an incandescent bulb and a compact fluorescent light (CFL). They priced the higher efficient CFL light at $1.50 and less efficient incandescent one at 50 cents, telling the participants that the former would last longer and cut energy costs by 75%. Then they added "Protect the Environment" stickers to half of the CFLs, but not the others.

The result: self-identified conservatives happily chose the more expensive bulb without the sticker. But when the CFL bulbs were labeled, they were less likely to buy it. Across all participants, 60% chose CFLs. With the stickers added, only about 30% of "more conservative participants" chose it.

"These findings indicate that connecting energy-efficient products to environmental concerns can negatively affect the demand for these products, specifically among persons in the United States who are more politically conservative," the researchers say.

Marketers therefore would be wise to either tailor messages to different audiences, or come up with statements of "trans-ideological appeal." "Different messages may be needed to reach different groups, and we think it is also important to identify more unifying messages," Gromet says, in an email.