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Why human stories always win

We’ve now tested the effectiveness of hundreds upon hundreds of climate change messages, and if you were to zoom in on the content that consistently outperforms, this is what you’d see:

People.

people

Again and again, whether the topic was jobs, extreme weather, or the scientific facts of overheating, one finding seemed to stand head and shoulders above the rest: Ads with faces win.

As the proof points piled up, it began to appear like the messenger mattered as much as the message. So we went back to the data. What performed better, talking about the dangers of wildfires, or talking about the damage to one specific family? Celebrating the promise of green jobs, or showcasing the people who’ve gotten them? Having an organization share a message about protecting our kids’ futures, or having a mom share a message about protecting her kid’s future?

The data says …

It’s intuitive that the more “trustworthy” the content felt, the more persuasive we could be. But what made something more trustworthy? A lot of things – the tone of the ad, the message itself, but most of all: seeing a real, human face.

seeing a real, human face

Let’s zoom in on one case: extreme weather.

We know that if you can get people to attribute extreme weather to climate change (in other words, get them to believe that climate change is the cause of worsening extreme weather), they are more likely to support action on climate change.

So what’s the best way to get this message to someone who likely isn’t thinking about climate change day in and day out? One approach we took was polished and precise, a provocative ad that highlighted the constant “state of emergency” we often find ourselves in due to extreme weather. Even though it feels like each of these storms and wildfires are discrete events, in fact, “it’s all one emergency.” Climate change.

The ad did okay. It increased strong support for immediate climate action by 3.4%.

What did a lot better (almost four times better!): A natural, casual conversation between two moms, one a climate scientist, and one an everyday American who had some questions about how (and why) wildfires were getting worse. It was patient, thoughtful, and ultimately very effective, increasing strong support for immediate action by 12.0%.

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A focus group respondent offered clues as to why the human conversation worked better: “Well, I guess it felt less like you were trying to convince me of something, and more like you were just sharing the information and letting me come to my own conclusion. And it didn’t feel like some big organization with an agenda. Just a smart person who was sharing her knowledge.”

Another focus group respondent added dimension to the importance of human protagonists. “I guess I never think of scientists as moms like me. I know that’s silly, but you think of them as very different from you. Separate. But this is a woman who’s concerned about her kids, just like I am. It sticks with you more.”

The importance of “people like me”

You can present the exact same climate change message to people, and when it comes from a person with a similar accent or background as them, we see double-digit increases in message effectiveness.

Our challenge in the climate change movement: Most people don’t see themselves as environmentalists, and they see climate change as an environmentalist issue. So we have to rise above those narrow identity markers and show them that the issue does indeed matter for “people like me.”

This insight was at the heart of one of our earliest ads, “Florida Man.” It starred a guy who got arrested for bringing an alligator with him on a beer run – not exactly the most obvious climate change messenger. Yet when conservative men listened to Robby Stratton detail his concerns about local flooding, it significantly increased their concern about climate change, far more than other messages had. The humor broke through, and the messenger connected.

That’s interesting …

Identity-led messages can also be the least polarizing

Leading with identity offers a way in. It gives people permission to care. They have a dimension of connection other than politics, and for that reason we’ve found identity-led messages are some of the least polarizing. “People like me” can truly span the political spectrum. Another Science Moms message, “A Letter to My Kids,” featuring Dr. Joellen Russell, shared why she works so hard to research this issue: they’re fighting every day for a better world for their kids.

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What to do about it …

To get people to care about climate change, we need to tell human stories starring “people like me.” Show people that climate change is not some abstract, conceptual phenomenon; it’s a real person problem impacting people you relate to, connect with, and care about.

  • Find the humans. Anything related to climate change is full of individual, human stories. It’s not about wildfire season, it’s about the people losing their home. It’s not about high gas prices, it’s about someone almost losing their job. A spot highlighting these human stories created a 15.0% increase in strong support for climate action among women, 10.0% overall.
  • Humanize the headlines. Another recent campaign specific to California showcased the individual humans most affected by the headlines many have become immune to. A headline about a drought is easy to ignore … but the face of a farmer is hard to forget. This campaign led to a 14.2% increase in strong support for climate action.
  • Connect on shared values. Whether it’s parents or farmers, find an “in-group” your audience relates to, and connect with them on shared values, highlighting how climate change fits within their preexisting moral framework. To this day, one of our highest performing ads is Dr. Burt explaining why she became a climate scientist: for her daughter. It spurs a 13.2% increase in strong support for climate action, largely because it leads with “mom.”
  • Lift up unexpected messengers. Never forget “Florida Man.” Messengers who cut across identity lines can prove, by their own conviction, that this is a human not a political issue.

At our core, humans are herd animals. We’re wired to be social and to care about our communities. Human stories featuring “people like me,” time and time again, have proven to be the most reliable at lifting support for action on climate change. When we lead with peoples’ identity, rather than our issue, support follows.

Here’s to the humans.

John and Jessica