Green Canary in the Progressive Coal Mine
In a cleverly-titled October 24 post, “WITT, YOYOs, and Why Americans Don’t Go Green”, Joel Makower described the implications of market research about why it’s hard to get Americans to listen to talk about environmental problems, let alone to take appropriate action. Sponsored by ecoAmerica, a group which, from its minimal-information website, appears to comprise SRI International Business Intelligence, Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and Campus Climate Challenge, this
[…] extensive study of Americans' environmental attitudes…points up the serious obstacles faced by activists -- as well as green marketers in the private sector -- in getting Americans to align their actions with their innate desire to make the world a better place. […T]he big-picture takeaways are: • There is no common agreement on what environmental concern means or what to do about it. • Libertarian values are gaining over communal ones. • Environmental complexity is paralyzing. • Pocketbook environmentalism is powerful. […]The…research found that even the most environmentally sympathetic Americans have competing priorities; that environmentalism is hampered by anti-science and anti-intellectual attitudes; and that men and women have very different environmental concerns…. […]The millions of Security Moms and NASCAR Dads who haven't yet tuned into how climate change and fisheries loss might mess with their kids' future aren't about to be beaten into submission by the latest arguments or evidence. They're not about to make purchase decisions based on a maybe-someday rationale for stemming environmental problems. They want to know: what's in it for me, today? So, big news: Americans are shallow, misinformed, self-interested, and unsophisticated. But they're our neighbors, our colleagues, and our relatives. And they're likely your clients, customers, or constituents. If you want to move them toward greener behavior and actions, you'll need to deal -- carefully and creatively -- with all of these sobering realities.
Think of the environmental communication problem as the canary in the progressive coal mine. ecoAmerica's research shines a light on what is making the canary sick. ecoAmerica took the canary in for an MRI—market research investigation—and came up with a grave diagnosis. But they also got a better idea of what will be needed to cure the poor bird.
As we listen to the current flock of feebly chirping progressive politicos and spokespersons, we can tell that there’s something wrong. They sure don’t seem to be singing a coherent song that the public hums under its breath (despite current public revulsion against the conservatives in power).
The message here for progressives (and moderates, liberals, etc.) is: It’s about the marketing, stupid! Marketing is how everything is sold in America, from products to services to political ideas.
Marketing, based on underlying market research, is how the conservative movement has succeeded in developing support for their ideas and values. It’s how they prepare the ground for conservative candidates and policies. And it’s how they’ve been promoting the values—libertarian, pocketbook, anti-intellectual—that have been making it hard to have a broad-based, meaningful dialogue about America’s future.
To date, marketing capacity has been sadly lacking on the progressive side. Until moderates and progressives invest serious money in infrastructure functions like market research, language testing, narrative development, and strategic marketing services for the progressive movement as a whole, we’re not going to make progress.
Research is an essential ingredient of this mix—research to find out what matters to different sectors of the public, and how large sectors of the public can be persuaded to support progressive values and ideas. Linguistic analysis alone isn’t sufficient. Good policy ideas aren’t sufficient. Clever phrases or narratives aren’t sufficient. Single-issue efforts aren’t sufficient. Political polls about candidates and ballot measures aren’t sufficient. All of those things—language, ideas, phrases, narratives—should be tested to identify the ones that will work. Testing isn’t cheap, but it’s worth the investment if we want to be successful.
It’s time we deal -- carefully and creatively -- with these sobering realities.