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Effects of implicit and explicit green signals in advertising

This paper finds that downplaying explicit statements of environmental benefits can be a more effective advertising strategy than prioritising the environmental aspects in product categories that are not normally seen as “green”. This is because consumers often perceive green products as performing less well than conventional products, according to the paper. 

This perception may be due to the lay theory that, in efficient markets, a product performing better in one aspect must be sacrificing performance in another category. Hence, despite many consumers saying they want to buy green products, this wish does not always translate into actually buying them. 

Marketers use two main strategies to advertise green products:

  • Explicit signals - clearly stating the environmental benefits of a product, such as Toyota advertising the low emissions of its Prius car.
  • Implicit signals - making the environmental benefits of a product less prominent than other factors. For example, Tesla and BMW focus on aspects of performance such as acceleration time when advertising their cars, minimising the focus on any environmental benefits.

This paper documents two studies.

First, a survey of 253 people in the United States asked participants to rate two advertisements of laundry detergent: one with a large, prominent label indicating that the product is eco-friendly (explicit signals), and one where the ecolabel was smaller and at the bottom of the advertisement (implicit signals). The respondents were also divided into groups and were led to believe that green products are either common or uncommon in the laundry detergent sector.

When participants believed that green laundry detergents are common, they were more likely to intend to buy the product when it was advertised with explicit signals than when it was advertised with implicit signals, and were more likely to rate the detergent as performing well when explicit signals were used as opposed to implicit signals (note that the study did not involve actually making a purchase nor testing the product - only perceptions). 

In contrast, when participants were led to believe that green laundry detergents are uncommon, the explicit signals led to lower perceived product performance (compared to implicit signals), and there was no significant difference in purchase intent between the two advertising strategies.

This supports the authors’ hypothesis that explicitly advertising environmental benefits is more likely to be successful when people believe that products within the product category are often green, because the products are less likely to be perceived as performing poorly. The results of the first study are shown below.

Image: Figure 2, Usrey et al. Green product advertising strategy and typicality on performance evaluations.

Image: Figure 1, Usrey et al. Green product advertising strategy and typicality on purchase intent.

The second study surveyed 170 US respondents, who were asked to rate advertisements for washing machines under four conditions: implicit versus explicit environmental signals, and within those groups, an optional or non-optional “ecomode” - in this case a washing programme that reduces power and water usage. 

When the respondents were told the ecomode was optional, they viewed product performance more favourably and were more likely to want to buy the product when implicit advertising was used, as opposed to explicit advertising. 

When the respondents were not told the ecomode was optional, they were more likely to rate performance highly when explicit signals were used than when implicit signals were used. However, there was no significant difference in purchase intention between the explicit and implicit advertising strategies.

This supports the authors’ second hypothesis that explicit advertising of an optional green feature is likely to cause people to be sceptical about the product’s performance. This is because the optional mode means they view the product as being in a category where green products are unusual - and therefore, as shown in the first study, explicit advertising in this category is likely to backfire. In contrast, non-optional green features are better advertised with an explicit strategy. The results of the second study are shown below.

Image: Figure 3, Usrey et al. Green product advertising strategy and green attribute optionality on performance evaluations.

Image: Figure 4, Usrey et al. Green product advertising strategy and green attribute optionality on purchase intent.

The authors recommend that companies use an advertising strategy for environmental features that depends on the product category. For example, when advertising a green sports car - a sports car being a product type not usually associated with environmental benefits - companies could reduce the perceived incongruity between the product’s performance and its green features by using an implicit, rather than explicit, advertising strategy.

 

Abstract

Despite frequent reports that they favour products with environmental benefits, consumers often purchase conventional alternatives. One reason for this is the performance liability associated with green products, in which consumers perceive them as being less effective. This research examines the concept of “green understatement” (i.e., communication of implicit green signals) compared with “green emphasis” (i.e., communication of explicit green signals) in green product advertising as a strategy to enhance performance evaluations. We test whether, why, and when an implicit (versus explicit) advertising strategy leads to higher performance evaluation for green products. We suggest and show that implicit green signals are more effective in conditions under which consumers have more concerns about the product’s performance or have lower expectations about its greenness. More specifically, the results of two experimental studies show that implicit (versus explicit) communication about greenness leads to higher performance evaluations for products that are less commonly green (Study 1) and for products that have an optional green mode (Study 2). The findings aid in the understanding of how a green product advertising strategy may influence performance evaluations and provide managerial implications for green product promotion.

 

Reference

Usrey, B., Palihawadana, D., Saridakis, C. and Theotokis, A., 2020. How Downplaying Product Greenness Affects Performance Evaluations: Examining the Effects of Implicit and Explicit Green Signals in Advertising. Journal of Advertising, pp.1-16.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource resource What are the influences on our food choices?

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