The Big Oil Spill: is it enough to change consumer behavior?

Shelton group logo Suzanne Shelton, President of the Shelton Group, takes a look at whether or not the recent oil spill has the power to alter consumer behavior. She explains that Americans are more likely to understand and have a connection with an issue if they can see it in front of them. Her company did a quick poll early this week in which 20% of respondents said that they would reduce their gas consumption as a result of the spill and 50% of respondents said that they would do nothing.

Posted May 6, 2010
By Suzanne Shelton, The Shelton Group

We often talk about how Americans are a see-it-to-believe it lot.  We
see it show up in our focus groups and surveys — if people have a
real-world, tangible connection to something (as in, they have a kid
with asthma or a relative who lives in a remote village in South
American with major water shortage issues) they’re a lot more tuned in
to sustainability in general and have already locked in sustainable
behaviors and buying patterns.  We capitalize on this in our work as
well — our communication and advertising campaigns ALWAYS include both
an emotional appeal and a rational appeal (very specific reasons to
believe, very specific benefits one can expect).  And we’ve seen this
work time and time again.

So when oil started gushing into the Gulf of Mexico we wondered:  is
this tangible and real enough to make Americans adopt conservation
behaviors?  Can we connect what’s happening in the sea now to our own
demand for energy and daily consumption of it?  If so, will we change
our ways?

Thus, we fielded a two-night poll Monday and Tuesday.  We got 1,312
completed surveys, giving our data a +/- 3% margin of error.  The
results are a mixed bag and whether you see them as encouraging or
depressing really depends on the lens you use to look at the data.  Here
are the key takeaways:

  • 50% of Americans said they plan to do nothing in response to the oil
    spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  20% said they planned to reduce their gas
    consumption in light of the accident and 14% said they planned to
    reduce their consumption of plastic products and products sold in
    plastic containers.
  • When asked how they characterize the accident, 39% thought “it was a
    terrible accident caused by corporate negligence” and 36% said “it was a
    terrible accident, but our country’s need for domestic oil makes the
    possibility of such accidents an acceptable risk.  21% said that “it was
    an accident waiting to happen and offshore drilling should be halted.
  • And the response option with the lowest agreement level (7%) was “it
    was indirectly caused by my own gas and petroleum-based product

One other piece:

  • 42% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The recent West
    Virginia coal mine disaster and the oil spill in the Gulf have made me
    think more about the human and environmental costs associated with my
    own energy consumption.”

Though we were surprised at the number who said this kind of accident
is an acceptable risk, as marketers of conservation and sustainability,
we’re encouraged by the number who say recent events are at least
causing them to think about their consumption.  We expect the number of
people indicating they’ll take action will increase with the number of
images we begin to see of oil covered dolphins and dead turtles and
pelicans.  As this story develops, and as you market energy
conservation, keep in mind that the benefits and costs must be made real
to Americans before they’ll take action.  And also keep in mind that we
have short attention spans.  So now may be the time to plant some

We intend to repeat these questions in our Green Living Pulse survey,
which goes in the field in a couple of weeks.  We’ll keep you posted on
how consumer opinion is developing and shifting…and on what that means
for your advertising and marketing.

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