Environmental Advertising Increases When the Economy Is Stronger

Environmental concern is greater when the economy is stronger, a study found which looked at environmental advertising in National Geographic over three decades. Specifically, the study, conducted by three researchers at Penn State University, found that consumers are more receptive to environmental appeals and marketers do more environmental advertising when the economy is improving. There is a strong statistical correlation, the three researchers discovered, between the GDP and the amount of environmental advertising. As Lee Ahern, one of researchers said, “We found that changes in GDP do indeed predict the level of ‘green’ advertising.”

“Results support the idea that key economic indicators affect the level of green strategic messaging,” said Ahern. “This perspective argues that environmental concern will be greater in stronger economies and better economic times. By extension, consumers will be more attuned and receptive to green appeals when the economy is improving, and marketers will employ more green advertising.”


There are several reasons why the researchers selected National Geographic for  the study, including the fact that it is among the highest circulation publications in the country. Other reasons include the following:

  • It has maintained the same editorial mission and general readership demographics over the last 30 years
  • It is a natural outlet for environmental advertising as the nation’s leading nature publication
  • It is consistent in terms of advertising format, and has had a consistent advertising policy for the past 50 years

The researchers put the 577 ads examined into seven categories (pollution, greenhouse gas reduction, solid waste problems, species/habitat protection, energy efficiency, energy independence and general state of the environment). Of the ads examined, only 6.8 percent were coded GHG reduction. There were no GHG ads in the first decade (1979-88). During the second decade (1989-98) GHG reduction ads began to emerge, and during the third decade GHG reduction ads increased.

During the first decade there were many energy efficiency ads, but the second decade saw many species/habitat preservation ads. There was also a decline in the second decade in energy independence ads. The third decade had a more level distribution of issue types, with a further decrease in energy independence ads, but an increase in general state of the environment ads.

The dominant sponsors for all three decades were corporations, followed by advocacy organizations, associations/front groups, and the government. Over the three decades, corporations moved away from product ads and advocacy messages to image/CSR messages.

The researchers also looked at message frames. In the third decade, association/front groups and advocacy organizations moved toward gain-framed messages, and corporations moved a “bit” toward future-generation framed messages. Advocacy organization messages were predominantly about doing more, while corporations and association/front groups focused more on taking less and doing more, but there is an increasing trend among corporations toward the ‘doing more’ frame. A total of 69.8 percent of corporate ads focused on ‘taking less’ in the first decade, and decreased to 22.7 percent in the second decade, but increased to 39.4 percent in the last decade.

Photo: Flickr user, Exfordy

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.