Monday, April 21, 2008

How Green Was My Gesture?

A friend of ours recently returned, unrepentant, from her adopted state of Vermont, to our and her hometown for a visit. She was somewhat unsettled when she arrived, still frustrated by her inability to rent a Toyota Prius at the airport. Vermont both breeds and attracts more right-living people than any other US state. Our friend was certainly right-living when she left, and noticeably moreso when she returned. As she effortlessly eased the conversation to organic tampons, I excused myself and went off to search for a power tool and a project.

The Toyota Prius is a subject that has long fascinated us at marketmambo. While it wasn’t the first hybrid car in the US (that would be the no-longer produced Honda Insight) it is the most recognizable hybrid brand, thanks to A-list celebrity owners such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, who have their Prius’ waiting on the tarmac for the arrival of their personal jet.

The Prius quickly became more than a car valued for its economic or environmental friendliness. The Prius premium of $6000 over a comparable model would require decades to justify by fuel savings. One notable analysis argued that from creation to destruction, the Prius consumes more energy than a Hummer. Another criticism suggests that the environmental cost of disposing of the Prius’ battery outweighs any potential benefit due to reduced carbon emissions.

Along with the car comes a healthy dose of Prius piety: the belief that somehow, your purchase of the Prius makes you morally superior to all other car owners. Research conducted in 2007 by CNW Marketing showed that only 36% of Prius owners cited fuel economy as the prime motivator for their car choice, not even in contention with the reason cited by 57% of purchasers: “It makes a statement about me”. According to Prius owner/actor/writer Larry David, “I needed something to make me feel smugly superior”.

Perhaps the most enjoyable lampoon of Prius piety was the 2006 episode of South Park in which Stan composes a hit song “Come On, People Now” which urges all residents to purchase a hybrid. His success unintentionally creates an environmental disaster as the town is enveloped in, no not smog, but a cloud of smug. The smug cloud then has regional consequences as it merges with a similar cloud resulting from George Clooney’s Oscar acceptance speech, precipitating a “perfect storm” of smugness. Please take a three minute break from your other tasks and enjoy the South Park clip below.

But the purpose of this post is not to heap derision on the Prius or its purchasers. It’s only that the opportunity to use a quote from Larry David or a clip from South Park simply can’t be wasted. And in fact this post really isn’t about the Prius at all. This post continues our contemplation of the marketing gesture, in this case the green gesture: the insignificant act for which we hope to be perceived in a better light by others. The green gesture has become an important tool to position both the personal and the corporate brand.

A “green” product claim seems to have become a requirement for most marketers. Home Depot has labeled many of its products “EcoOptions”. GE last year spent nearly its entire advertising budget on “EcoImagination”, its line of enviro-friendly products, which only make up 8% of their total sales. Wal-Mart has wrapped a national advertising campaign around Earth Day bearing the tagline “Budget friendly prices. Earth friendly products”. Steelcase, the office furniture maker from Grand Rapids, Michigan, may have broken new green ground by purchasing naming rights to a wind farm.

One form of green claim that companies such as Google, Yahoo, Staples, Pepsico, and Whole Foods have begun to make is “carbon neutrality”. The hoped-for inference of a carbon neutrality claim is that these companies have modified their practices to reduce their carbon emissions. In fact, many of these companies have actually increased their carbon emissions, but justify the claim of “neutrality” through their purchase of Renewable Energy Certificates. REC’s are pieces of paper, like stocks and bonds, ostensibly issued by the financial backers of carbon-reduction projects, and purchased by companies who then claim that their own carbon emissions have been offset. The project gets the funds, the company gets the ad copy, and the brokers get very, very rich.

The environmental marketing firm TerraChoice, performed an analysis of over 1000 products which were marketed with enviro-friendly claims. There conclusion: only one of the products made claims that could be justified. Making unjustified environmental claims for a product is not new, and the word “greenwashing” has been around for many years. But it seems that greenwashing may now be at an all-time high.

If you’re interested in learning more on the practice, we recommend you follow up on the link below on “The Six Sins of Greenwashing” or go to the site, to see examples of dubious advertising which has been uploaded by consumers.

Consumers appear to have become skeptical of these claims. Results of a survey sponsored by Burst Media show that almost 90% of consumers believe enviro-friendly product claims only sometimes or never. Another report by Nielsen describes the blogosphere abuzz with chatter on environmental issues, with greenwashing an important part of the conversation.

So when will skepticism lead to cynicism? When will green fatigue set in among consumers, and then be transmitted back to marketers? We at marketmambo suspect that it will be soon. All this talk of sustainability, is well, unsustainable. Perhaps this will be better for all. In the green dance between consumers and marketers, neither partner can honestly claim the truer, nobler motivation. For many, green is a only a gesture, devoid of intention and commitment.

So what about Leo and Cameron, and for that matter, the whole state of Vermont? We at marketmambo are quite confident that Leo and Cameron will do just fine and will soon be onto to the next gesture. Vermont is simply too big for us to feel personally concerned about.

And that leaves our friend, the hometown expat, the adopted child of Vermont. She is someone we can be personally concerned about. Remember the Burst Media study we cited above? The most fascinating finding, in our opinion, was that while “concern for the environment” was generally the most widely-shared inspiration for the green inclined, the greenest of the green cite “to live a better quality of life” as their motivation. And there is our right-living friend, who has found herself at a time of life at which doing more good than harm has become very important, when in the game of life, the score truly matters. We hope that the next generation of green marketers can somehow be worthy of her passion.


As we were coming to terms with our thoughts on green matters, an item came to our attention about a exhibition held in England this weekend by marketers of green funerals. Check out the if the subject interests you. And if you’re brain is wired like ours, please enjoy the 20 second clip below of Charleton Heston, who ends this posting only to be resurrected to begin an upcoming posting. Happy Earth Day.


On the Toyota Prius, click here.
On the CNW Marketing research, click here.
On Cameron, Leo, and Larry David, click here.
For our previous post on the marketing gesture, click here.
To learn more about RECs, click here.
For a bit about the TerraChoice analysis, click here.
For the Six Sins of Greenwashing, click here.
For the Greenwahing Index site, click here.
For the AP article on the Green Funeral Exhibition, click here.
For the green funeral site, click here.
For the Burst Media report, click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was in Indianapolis this past weekend, where my fiance’s mother had recently purchased a Prius hybrid. I assumed that she would be a standout in her neighborhood due to this purchase, but she want on to explain that her little subdivision was full of Prius hybrids. It’s kind of an interesting environmental time in that being green is catching on (for now), but the technologies to support green efforts aren’t quite there yet. Regardless, I think the bigger impact is that people in this country are at least starting to think green, whether motivated by perception by others or true environmental consideration. Either way, the better for Mother Nature in the long run, well, hopefully. Jess