Harnessing the Power of “Green” Messaging: How Advertising Can Help Us All Step Up to the Climate Challenge

As COP 2023 comes to a close and we are once again inspired to step up to the climate crisis, it’s time to start fuelling this spirit into meaningful action. In light of COP, an influx of environment-focussed ads has graced our screens over the past few weeks, reigniting conversations within the industry and among consumers alike. From Make My Money Matter’s “Oblivia Coalmine” to Mars’ “Healthy Planet Productions, we’ve seen brands step up to the climate challenge in some of the most creative and thought-provoking ways. And while these brands make “green” advertising look easy, the realists among us know that this isn’t quite the case.  

A Crisis in Confidence?

Communicating the climate challenge to consumers is no easy feat. Sustainability covers various topics and industries, making it overwhelming to say the least. The first step for brands is to convey a clear and understandable message. However, with a lack of guidance and research on how to effectively communicate environmental issues, and the sheer magnitude of the topic, it’s no surprise that many brands shy away from it altogether.

In fact, System1 uncovered that over the past 18 months, only 8% of UK TV ads featured an environmental message. Of that 8%, we found that less impactful actions in terms of lowering carbon emissions, such as waste reduction, appeared most frequently. Conversely, the most impactful actions, such as living car-free or using alternative forms of energy, featured minimally. Whilst it’s clear that there is room for more brands to step up to the climate challenge, the industry also needs to direct its energy towards more impactful behaviours.

The Greenprint

Recognising an opportunity to equip brands with the confidence to step up to the climate challenge, we at System1 joined forces with ITV to create The Greenprint. Enriching commercial effectiveness data with behavioural science insights from Richard Shotton, author of The Choice Factory, The Greenprint shines a light on how brands can effectively drive commercial impact (Star Rating) and positive behaviour change. Together, we unlocked six actionable insights.

Drive Hope Over Fear

It can be tempting for brands to want to shock consumers into action with the frightening reality of the climate crisis. However, doing so risks triggering what behavioural science calls the ostrich effect. If consumers feel scared or guilty, they’ll likely bury their head in the sand and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

If brands are to effectively foster positive behaviour change, they should look instead towards humour and uplift. Not only is humour incredibly effective from a commercial point of view, but it also increases memorability and makes tough topics easier to swallow. If not through humour, brands should look to inspire hope using positive messaging.

Take IKEA as an example, who, in its ‘Fortune Favours the Frugal’ campaign offer a glimmer of hope for mankind. Showcasing the powerful impact made by relatively ‘small’ behaviours, IKEA convey that individual actions can make a substantial difference.

Suggest It, Don’t Shout It

There is often a lot of pressure on consumers to ‘do the right thing’, making environmental behaviours feel more like a duty than a choice. From behavioural science we know that dutiful decisions are less desirable than appealing ones and are therefore less likely to drive long-term behaviour change. Brands should instead seek to align the environmental message with something consumers already value or care about.

M&S do this brilliantly in its ‘Farm to Foodhall’ campaign, by focussing on delicious and plump red diamond strawberries, and subtly weaving environmental cues into the background – rather than insisting that consumers buy its sustainably sourced strawberries, it uses appealing imagery and its classic food porn style to tempt us in.

Stories Over Stats

We know from behavioural science that human beings are more drawn to concrete cues rather than abstractions, which is great news for brands and advertisers. Rather than overwhelming consumers with facts and statistics, they can lean into what they do best: storytelling. Real people and stories are easier for consumers to comprehend and engage with, and make the environmental behaviour seem attainable.

Great Western Railway tap into this brilliantly, with its nostalgic ‘Five Gets There First’ campaign. We follow the characters as they embark on two, very different journeys to the seaside – one which is blissfully plain sailing and the other, well let’s just say it takes more than a few turns for the worst!

Meet Them 90% of the Way

One of the most effective ways to drive behaviour change is to make it as easy as possible, removing any barriers that may be in the way. For example, if you want people at work to only use black ink, then change the printing default to black and white. Behavioural science also tells us that human beings are wired to feel more strongly about avoiding losses then about making gains, a principle called loss aversion. This is exactly why plant-based brands often focus on great taste rather than ‘better for the environment’ – taste is just one thing we won’t compromise on!

Use the Right Messenger

Messages land more effectively depending on who they come from, a principle behavioural science calls the messenger effect. When conveying green messages, there are three effective types of messengers that brands and advertisers can tap into.

Authoritative messengers are often used to establish trust and credibility. Partnering with known organisations such as WWF, or with media partners such as ITV Home Planet can boost the impact of a message. Alternatively, celebrity endorsement can create an element of familiarity, making new information easier to take in.

Relatable messengers are individuals we can personally relate to. They’re effective, as they enforce a principle called social proof, which uses the power of social influence and being a part of the ‘norm’ to drive behaviour change.

Neutral messengers are very much non-partisan and innocent, often appearing in the form of children or animations. These messengers are great at delivering messages in a non-judgmental way, limiting the likelihood of the ostrich effect, an example being Bird’s Eye Green Cuisine’s ‘Welcome to the Plant Age’.

Triggers for Change

Timing can make a big difference to how audiences engage with certain messages. We know from behavioural science that we are more likely to take up new habits at fresh-start moments, such as the start of the new year, but there are also other factors at play when it comes to the environment. This year we saw many brands leverage the context of COP to air their environmental ads, timing their release for when sustainability is more relevant and therefore engaging to consumers.


Create with Confidence

Whilst The Greenprint is by no means a solution to the climate crisis, System1 and ITV set out with the intention of igniting the confidence in creators to show up and step up to the challenge. The full report spotlights best-in-class examples from brands who are already effectively fostering positive change within the industry and in consumers.