Advertising for a Greener Tomorrow: How to Drive Change with Sustainable Advertising

The looming presence of the climate crisis casts a shadow over industries, governments, and consumers worldwide. With topics like geothermal energy, biodiversity, and carbon emissions dominating headlines, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such monumental challenges. This sense of helplessness has contributed to a significant rise in ‘eco-anxiety’ since 2021, as chronic fear of environmental doom takes hold.

Just last week, the gravity of the climate crisis hit closer to home as the US Insurance industry grappled with its toll. A recent Forbes publication revealed that insurers are increasingly hesitant to renew policies in climate-affected ‘high risk’ areas, leaving Americans vulnerable to wildfires, flooding, and storms. Shockingly, 80% of the US population faces exposure to at least one high-risk climate hazard, according to the New York Times.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom, especially for advertisers, who hold a unique position to directly influence behaviours and strive for a brighter, greener tomorrow.

The Opportunity for Advertisers

Advertising holds a prime position to spearhead conversations on sustainability, especially considering that about 83% of the American public considers sustainability a somewhat to very important topic. With mass audiences already receptive to environmental messaging, there’s a significant opportunity to engage and evoke responses.

Despite this advantage, System1’s latest research revealed a stark discrepancy: only 3% of US TV ads grabbed at the opportunity to address environmental concerns over the past 3 years. This not only means that brands are missing out on reaching the many consumers who believe sustainability is important, but they are also falling short of fulfilling the expectations of two-thirds of audiences who believe it is their obligation to set the tone for sustainability.

Figure 2 (below): The prevalence of sustainability messaging, according to coding for a random selection of 1,000 US ads that aired 2020-2023; Source: System1

Hot on the heels of our latest report, The Greenprint, which emphasizes advertising’s pivotal role in addressing the climate crisis, we shift the focus to the United States. In The Greenprint USA, System1 and behavioral science expert, Richard Shotton uncover six key themes and best-in-class examples that inform effective advertising strategy and push for greater ‘eco-confidence’. This actionable report illustrates how brands and advertisers can seize the sustainable opportunity, maximizing their advertising for positive behavior change and long-lasting commercial impact (measured by System1’s Star Rating).

Here’s an exclusive peek at some of the insights we uncovered from the most effective ads that include sustainability messaging:

Tell Stories Over Stats 

In behavioral science, it is a well-known fact that human beings interpret concrete cues such as characters, stories, and imagery more readily than abstracted facts and statistics. This presents a huge opportunity for advertisers, as storytelling is what they know best.

Moreover, storytelling offers the added advantage of fostering emotional connections and memory structures with audiences, contributing to long-term brand-building success and higher brand recall. As a result, your brand will be forefront in consumers’ minds during crucial purchasing decisions and sustainable practices, driving positive behavior change and commercial impact.

Kia’s Super Bowl ad, “Robo Dog,” brilliantly captures the essence of storytelling by seamlessly integrating their electric vehicle into an emotive, character-led narrative.

“There’s a large portion of American consumers who have not yet adopted EVs. To appeal to them, we knew we needed to present ours differently. Not as cold science fiction, but rather as something warm and inviting. With the creation of a lovable Robo Dog who pines to be with the Kia EV6 and its owner, we created a genuine connection with viewers. And helped them open their minds and their hearts to a more sustainable mobility option by seeing it as a vehicle that enables them to live a more fully charged life.”

Ben Purcell Chief Creative Officer, David&Goliath

Meet them 90% of the Way

Addressing the climate crisis doesn’t have to mean turning our lives upside down; sometimes, the most impactful changes emerge from small, easy adjustments.

Hellmann’s 2023 Super Bowl spot, “Mayo Cat” ad, earning 4.5-Stars, tackles the issue of food waste in the U.S. The campaign suggests practical steps to reduce food waste without major inconvenience or expense, emphasizing the simplicity of combining mayo with available ingredients to create delicious meals. This approach aligns with the notion that addressing climate challenges can start with small, creative changes.

"Hellmann's continues to challenge itself to find relatable, authentic and even humorous ways for people to think about their leftovers – and this year, by enlisting the help of Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Mayo Cat to help us do that in our spot {for the Big Game} has definitely elevated the influence of our Make Taste, Not Waste platform.”

Chris Symmes Senior Marketing Director, Dressings, North America, Unilever

Use the Right Messenger 

Choosing the right messenger is crucial for effectively landing environmental messaging. Behavioral science identifies three types: relatable, authoritative, and neutral.

Relatable messengers, aligned with the “Make it Social” principle of the EAST framework, tap into social influence. Put simply, relatable messengers leverage our innate desire to conform to social norms—if they’re doing it, then we should probably be doing it too! Authoritative messengers, like WWF, lend credibility to the narrative, while celebrity messengers add a sense of familiarity and trustworthiness.

Children serve as neutral messengers, due to their non-partisan and innocent nature. They can gently nudge adults in the right direction, without seeming confrontational or judgemental – take Amazon’s “Alexa, let’s get sustainable” below by example.

Create with Confidence 

The Greenprint USA underscores the potential of advertising, not only in showcasing sustainability commitments but also in driving behavior change among consumers. We hope that the report ignites confidence in advertisers and agencies to step up to the challenge of addressing the climate crisis.

To inspire your future work, download the full report to discover more of the themes plus best-in-class examples from brands that are effectively fostering positive change.