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Fundamentals matter

This past week, as the world’s leaders gathered in Glasgow, we took the moment as an opportunity to also reflect on nearly two years of intensive message testing at Potential Energy.

As a team, the one thing that the data consistently brings us back to is the persistent efficacy of this message, about scientific consensus.

In the U.S. we’ve tested this piece of creative — and various versions of it — in RCTs (Randomized Control Trials) multiple times and continue to run this concept head-to-head against all our other messages in active campaigns. And it wins virtually every time.

What the data says…

  • On average, this ad creates over 8.0% increase in strong support for immediate government action on climate change when tested in RCTs.
  • It is by far the least polarizing message of the dozens and dozens we have tested. When we analyze how ads perform based on party affiliation or identification, 99% Experts increase support for climate action nearly equally among self-identified Democrats (+10.4%) and Republicans (+8.9%). It’s one of our rare ‘works-for-everyone’ messages.
  • It outperformed our messaging on extreme weathereven as we faced extreme weather events all summer.

→ We ran a large-scale test with 4.3 million women in 5 states that pitted an extreme weather message against a scientific consensus message. The consensus message increased support by +2.8% over the extreme weather message, even with all the news coverage on droughts, heats, and storms.

→ This in-field test affirmed the hypothesis that it was a universally effective message across the spectrum, lifting support for government action from conservative and moderate audiences significantly.

A universally effective message

There is a significant body of academic research that supports the efficacy of the scientific consensus message, particularly as a “gateway belief” that enables persuasion on other subsequent topics related to climate change.

study published in 2018 from The Yale Program on Climate Change Communications shows that it can even be highly effective in what might arguably be the least climate-progressive state in the US: West Virginia.

Perhaps this isn’t as surprising as it is. That’s because:

  1. Fewer than 25% of Americans are actually aware that there is consensus.
  2. Vested interests have funded an expensive, decades-long misinformation campaign with the specific purpose of casting doubt on the consensus. Funding for climate communications is but a tiny fraction of these massive doubt-generating campaigns.
  3. In spite of the divisiveness surrounding science denialism, scientists still retain high trust with a majority of Americans.

The bottom line is that fundamentals matter. They give people a stronger, more durable grounding to support the kinds of hard choices we will have to make. And, unfortunately, the fundamentals just aren’t fully in place. Yet.

What to do about it:

Whenever we talk about climate, we need to drill it in that there is complete scientific consensus. Don’t assume everyone knows that. Incidentally, the effect doesn’t appear to be because the ad is funny — although humor definitely seems to help. We tested a similar concept that was more serious in tone and also saw increased support for action (about +4%).

One last thing…

We often receive pushback: “That’s yesterday’s argument.” “It’s time to move to something new.” “You are giving credit to the deniers’ argument.”

We get it. We’ve been hearing the same message -“listen to the scientists”- for a long time. But most of us also live inside the bubble of the climate movement. The reality is that most people live outside of it. Unfortunately, the data also consistently shows that most people, specifically Americans, know and understand very little about the issue.

Disinformation has shaken people, but emphasizing scientific consensus is a powerful way to overcome doubt. That’s not to say that other messages aren’t also sorely needed — our identity-led content, for example, are powerhouses. We just can’t seem to escape the fact that the numbers show that fundamentals matter, and it’s time to return to them.

Until next time,
John