It’s hard to watch television or browse the internet these days without hearing regular stories about how celebrities are “going green.” In the past week alone, I have read or skimmed through stories about how musician Sheryl Crow is launching an Eco Fashion Line, actress Pamela Anderson is building a green hotel, and comedian and actor Will Ferrell will be the first celebrity to drive BMW’s new hydrogen car. According to the story, Will Ferrell has also built a solar-powered environmentally friendly home. Should we care?
As a conservation social scientist, I have begun to wonder if these types of news stories about celebrities actually inspire people to “go green” themselves. I certainly hope that’s the case. If so, then we should care that Will Ferrell has built an eco-house. If not, then we should probably focus our attention elsewhere.
As to the question of whether or not celebrity role models encourage other people to make environmentally friendly choices, even if we were to conduct some scientific studies, the answer would probably never be definitive. If you think about it, stories about celebrities taking green actions are part of a broader advertising initiative that seeks to promote green products and lifestyles. But in advertising, we must remember that there are always winners and losers.
On one hand, celebrities should have more potential to be effective green role models and spokespeople. It makes sense that celebrities are more likely to gain someone’s attention than a Jane Doe. So, by having celebrities advertise green lifestyles and ecologically friendly products, then this strategy by default has some advantage. Of course, if people tend not to like the celebrity, then the strategy could potentially backfire. Al Gore, anyone? Despite their best intentions, your favorite celebrity might be causing more people to get turned off from all things green, rather than steering them where we would like them to go.
If we take another step and think of advertising more generally as communication, then there are probably some strategies that will make celebrities’ and non-celebrities’ efforts to promote green products and lifestyles more effective. If we are to care about when green celebs make news, then we should at least hope they promote their products and lifestyles well and don’t do a shoddy job of it. Here are three suggestions for green communicators, advertisers, and celebrities:
1. Choose a Messenger Whose Reputation Mirrors the Message
Make sure that the messenger helps embody the message. In other words, maybe Pamela Anderson is not the best person to be promoting the construction of green buildlings. It’s just my opinion, but wouldn’t it make more sense for her to promote ecologically friendly clothing or shoes instead? (I’m speaking strictly from an advertising standpoint. Anderson’s choice to build an eco-friendly hotel is fantastic). Just as you wouldn’t have someone like Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M. (a vegan) selling something like the George Foreman Grill, or Lance Armstrong peddling video games (something passive), rather than bikes (something active), if the messenger can match the message or product logically, this is good.
2. Use Communication Theories to Craft a Message That Addresses Your Audience’s Most Inner Concerns and Fears
Use relevant theories and models from communication to strengthen your message and increase its chances of being effective. Some specifics would include using your message to target and soothe what people fear or doubt about the product or lifestyle you are selling. Here is a hypothetical example of what I mean: “Hi. I’m Will Ferrell, and I want to tell you that solar panels, contrary to popular thought, are quite easy to install on your very own home and are actually not that expensive.”
Also targeting the audience’s significant others in some way is a good plan. Research involving the Theory of Planned Behavior has tended to show that when making decisions people are more influenced by their significant others than by society at large. In other words, close family members and friends are the people whose opinions matter when it comes to making choices and decisions. Here’s another hypothetical example: “Hi, I’m Will Ferrell. I just put solar panels on my house, and I’ve got to tell you: my parents love it. Now they can turn the thermostat up to 90 when they come over, at no additional energy costs to me! My brother and friends love it too because now we can throw heated bikini pool parties in the dead of winter! You’ve got to get some solar panels.”
3. Emphasize the Utility of Your Product, Rather Than Its Green Benefit (if applicable)
If you are targeting a broader audience, as is the case with most “green” endeavors, make the utility of the product the focus of your messaging rather than the values behind it– not vice versa. Thinking about Will Ferrell’s career as a movie star is a good analogy for explaining what I mean. While many people have a positive attitude about Will Ferrell and think he is funny, the product he is selling these days is movies, not himself.
People are interested in whether or not when they pay to see a movie with Will Ferrell that they will be entertained and laugh. If a marketing campaign for a movie focuses just upon Will Ferrell as the reason to see a movie, rather than some of the movie’s better jokes and its interesting plot, then this will ultimately over time probably not bring as many people to his movies. Even if people think Will Ferrell is funny, most will only want to see his movies if they enjoy them and think they will have a few laughs. Once the laughs stop and it’s all about Will Ferrell– the product will stop selling. Mike Myer’s The Love Guru flopped this summer for that exact reason. His reputation as someone funny wasn’t enough to carry the movie by itself (I haven’t seen the movie, but the critical consensus is pretty unified about the movie’s awfulness).
So how does this translate to environmental products and lifestyles? Focus first on what the product can do for someone (save them money, make them look cool, help them make friends, attract a boyfriend or girlfriend, etc…) Then enhance that message’s appeal by mentioning the environmental benefits. Of course, people who already think and act in environmentally friendly ways will already be predisposed to like your product– it’s the people on the outside who need an approach that suits their personal needs and desires more. Start with the benefits an individual gets from a product or lifestyle, and then move to the benefits for the greater world.
Just hope you are lucky enough to have a celebrity like Will Ferrell to help you implement these strategies into your ad campaign.
What Does It All Add Up To?
So to go back to my original title question once more– should we care when celebrities like Will Ferrell build eco-houses? Probably so.