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Green fatigue

Americans are still willing to buy environmentally friendly products, but only if they're friendly to the wallet as well

Green fatigue

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

When Audi unveiled its new "Green Police" campaign during the 2010 Super Bowl, it signaled a dramatic shift in the tidal wave of eco-conscious advertising that has been growing since the mid-2000s. In the commercial, average, relatable people make a series of innocuous decisions like choosing paper over plastic or putting an orange rind down the garbage disposal that result in their being raided by the "green police," a group of sinister-looking, big-brother-type authority figures.

Only at the end does the ad reveal what it is actually selling when, at an "eco-roadblock," a single driver is allowed to pass through unmolested because he's driving an Audi A3 TDI clean diesel. Over this frightening Orwellian image plays a remake of the Cheap Trick song "Dream Police" (only now it's Green Police).

What's interesting about Audi's pitch is that it doesn't trumpet from the mountaintops that the A3 was Green Car Journal's choice for "car of the year" as it might have in the past or explain why diesel is environmentally friendly. Rather it pokes fun at the environmental movement and its increasingly militant image. The message is buy green not because you're committed to reducing greenhouse gases or lightening your carbon footprint but so you won't get hassled. "We get it," the Audi ad comically implies. "We're tired of all those pushy greenies, too. Drive our car and they might leave you alone."

Though the spot has stirred up considerable controversy since its debut, it comes as no surprise to industry insiders who say consumers have been tiring of eco-marketing for a while now. "What we've been seeing in focus groups is a real green backlash," Suzanne Shelton, president of the Shelton Group advertising agency, reported in 2008, adding that when her team screens environmentally themed ads, "over half the room [rolls] their eyes: 'Not another green message.'"

The company's 2008 Eco Pulse survey of consumer attitudes found that only 21 percent of respondents are deliberately choosing perceived green items over non-green ones. And in a similar 2009 study the Boston Consulting Group found that only 34 percent of consumers now say that environmental friendliness influences their decision whether or not to purchase a product.

Darlene Schmitt, a realtor from Phoenix, Ariz., who's seen her income reduced as a result of the struggling housing market, is just such a consumer. "I try to be somewhat environmentally conscientious," Schmitt says. "I recycle; I don't leave the water running when I'm brushing my teeth." But she also admits that her shopping decisions aren't as influenced by the environment as they once were. "I'm working within a tighter budget these days, so when I'm shopping I'm more interested in the value I'm getting for my money than how green an item is."

It may have taken some time, but looking at the major car manufacturers as a bellwether for advertising as a whole suggests that businesses are finally getting wise to such sentiments. With Toyota's brand image suffering as a result of recalls and government investigations, Ford Motor Company has made no secret that it is aggressively trying to woo would-be Prius drivers over to its hybrids. But instead of imitating the environmentally themed "harmony between man, nature, and machine" ads that proved so successful for the world's largest automaker, Ford is championing fuel efficiency and cost saving.

For example, commercials for the Ford Fusion still display images associated with environmental stewardship, but they are always tied to economics. The Fusion's dash indicates the miles per gallon the car is getting by displaying an increasing number of leaves. The tagline "grow a tree in one" maintains a green association while the commercial's dialogue makes it clear that more leaves equals more money in your wallet.

Consumer research suggests Ford is taking exactly the right approach by appropriating the still-trendy gleam of greenness while making the bottom line, well, the bottom line.

GfK Roper Consulting's annual "green gauge" report shows that when Americans do buy green, it's because it coincides with saving them another kind of green. The most common purchases in the environmental category these days relate to energy-efficient choices like compact fluorescent light bulbs and Energy Star appliances. The Shelton Group's 2009 Eco Pulse survey echoed these results and then went further by reporting that the majority of respondents said they were only swayed by green advertisements if they also promised savings, with 71 percent citing saving money as their primary reason for buying energy­efficient products.

This is dramatic shift from the results the agency received in 2006 and 2007, when "to protect the environment" was the most popular answer. "Americans are concerned about their jobs, their homes, and their bank accounts. They're now more focused on saving money than saving the Amazon," Shelton commented.

Schmitt says this adjusted approach to environmental marketing would work well on her: "If it's green and a good value-great, I'm happy to buy it. But if it's just green-forget it."

Megan Basham

Megan Basham

Megan is film and television editor for WORLD and co-host for WORLD Radio. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All. Megan resides with her husband, Brian Basham, and their two daughters in Charlotte, N.C. Follow her on Twitter on @megbasham.