To be or to Not be Green? Using Green Labels in Advertisements

Picture of By Andrea Valdivia

By Andrea Valdivia

To be or not to be green? Most advertisers may encounter themselves facing this dilemma when designing a product advertisement: whether to include green-related messages or not. With the growing environmental concern among consumers, green appeals are increasingly being incorporated in brands’ advertising messages to make their products more attractive and likeable. As companies seek to meet public demands about communicating their environmentally responsible actions, green appeals can seem promising, since consumers tend to regard environmentally-friendly brands more favourably and become more eager to consider buying their products

What Are Green Appeals?

Green appeals are message characteristics that highlight the environmental attributes of a product. For instance, an advertisement may talk about the benefits of their products to help the environment while meeting the functions that consumers seek (product-related), or any other external aspects that relate to a product’s consumption. What is important is that companies describe the attributes of their products in terms of benefits for consumers, which can be either personal or environmental. 

Green appeals are governed by different mechanisms; they can either lead consumers to experience positive emotions in reaction to advertisements or cognitively process arguments about the functional attributes of a product and its environmental advantages. Certainly, whether affective or cognitive processes are triggered by green appeals will differ among us consumers, as there is a wide array of environmental-related message options that advertisers can employ to influence our consumer attitudes and intentions to buy what they have to offer. 

Skin products shown on Humanrace’s Instagram talk about the sustainability of their packaging and products – Source: @humanrace

What is interesting about green appeals is how these advertising messages select certain attributes of a product and make them more salient to affect how people respond to and make sense of a topic. This is what we know as framing, where green appeals referring to the positive green attributes of a product are made more salient in the message. Some of the aspects that green appeals can refer to are an organization’s sustainable production process, environmental facts, the environmental image of the company, or a combination of all. In advertising, framing helps to shape our perceptions of the products and the same brands that we use. Whether in the form of substantive claims about product green benefits, or claims associating the company to environmental concerns in their visuals, green appeals certainly make the positive environmental information about product benefits more prominent, so consumers can easily recognize these messages.  

The way that green appeals are presented can impact how we as consumers react, and this could result in more positive comments on brand attitude and our own advertising preferences.

The way that green appeals are presented can impact how we as consumers react, and this could result in more positive comments on brand attitude and our own advertising preferences. Since advertisements will be more effective depending on the attributes of the products they promote, advertising specific green labels could lead consumers to focus on how, by purchasing a product from an organization, they are being environmental advocates who are promoting social welfare, where this action is altruistic. This could become beneficial for organizations, as green appeals could induce positive emotions such as pride and fulfilment, and these can further be translated into positive attitudes about a brand. This becomes even more important since, when consumers are satisfied with what a brand offers and promises, they are likely to use these positive evaluations of the brand as a cue to base their purchase decisions. In other words, if consumers like a brand for its environmental responsibility, they may feel more convinced of acquiring its products.

Are We Conditioned to Positively Perceive Green Labels?

In psychology, evaluative conditioning refers to how people can associate positive or negative stimuli with a product, by sequentially or simultaneously associating a conditioned stimulus with a positive or negative unconditioned stimulus. For instance, if in an advertisement, a green appeal is used as an unconditioned stimulus (e.g. portraying natural imagery), this will automatically generate positive affective responses among consumers. Therefore, the conditioned stimulus – either the product advertised or the brand that offers it–, will start to be seen in the same positive light. As this effect is automatic and triggers unconscious processes in us consumers, green appeals can influence our attitudes and intentions to buy certain products, as we will be likely to associate these positive feelings with the brand and the advertisement we receive about the product. 

Since green appeals can elicit affective or cognitive processes when consumers are exposed to messages containing a green appeal, the green appeal and product advertised will be immediately associated together through what is known as associative learning, and this link associating both concepts will facilitate how we process information about the product or the brand. In other words, as information about the brand becomes easier to process, this ease can be translated into more positive attitudes about the advertisement, brand and/or product. This is precisely what makes green appeals more persuasive.

Tentree refers to the sustainability of their products by showing a customer using their reusable tote bags – Source: @tentree

When green labels are not effective: Greenwashing

Greenwashing is a technique that is sometimes used in advertising as a persuasive attempt for misleading purposes. It mainly consists of creating a false impression on consumers that their products are environmentally friendly, or rather giving out vague, unclear or misleading information about how a company’s products are beneficial for the environment when in fact they are not. What is concerning about greenwashing is how companies using this strategy merely as an image booster are attempting to deceive their customers, to influence their customer’s decisions of engaging with them and further improve their credentials. For instance, a greenwashing advertisement would merely refer to words like, ‘recycling’, ‘sustainability’ ‘organic’ or ‘natural’, without showing any solid proof of their product’s sustainability beyond making claims.

Organizations always need to be careful with the messages they transmit to their audiences, as people will eventually demand substantiation of the brand claims they make.

Sometimes, using appropriately green appeals can contribute to a favourable perception of advertising messages, and the brand that employs them. If there is an initial positive ad response, favourable attitudes can be transferred to the brand that offers it. However, this is not always the case. The awareness of this persuasive attempt could also harm our favourable perceptions of both an ad and the brand that promotes it, especially if we consumers perceive it as merely a greenwashing strategy. As previous advertising research has found conflicting responses towards ads, generating positive ad and brand attitudes is certainly crucial if companies want their consumers to be willing to buy their products, especially as purchase intentions are “consequences of attitudes”. Arguably, greenwashing can backfire if a consumer realizes that the company is playing upon this label. What is certain is that organizations always need to be careful with the messages they transmit to their audiences, as people will eventually demand substantiation of the brand claims they make.


Cover: igorovsyannykov

Edited by: Rajal Monga

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