Cities ineffectively selling water conservation with sex, emotions, and shame

Several American cities are making different marketing pitches for residents to save water:

The bus ads, billboards, and throatily narrated videos have been entertaining and educating S.F. residents since last year, but they recently picked up steam in the media. And last week, the S.F. Public Utilities Commission announced they’re throwing another $300,000 into extending the campaign, for more signs about full frontal washing machines and advice to nozzle your hose

If Exhibit A is San Francisco’s conservation porn, then Exhibit B is Los Angeles’ heart-string-tugging “Save the Drop” campaign. Launched by the Mayor’s office in April, it features an adorable, sad-eyed cartoon water-drop. “Water isn’t angry about your 20-minute shower. Just disappointed,” reads one poster. The drop, also featured in a series of videos narrated by Steve Carrell, takes the opposite approach from San Francisco’s cheeky sex-positive ads: It’s all about the emotional appeal. Enter the violins…

Denver, Colorado, has taken a decidedly different tack with their conservation campaigning. Perhaps taking a hint from the schadenfreude-fueled hashtaggery known as #droughtshaming, Denver officials simply want to make you feel bad. The 2014 “Use What You Need” campaign reminds citizens not to be “that guy”—you know, the Pomeranian-owning dude who waters his lawn outside the assigned hours, or that couple who lets their sprinklers run in the rain.

And the article then goes to an expert psychologist in this field who knows whether such strategies actually get people to change their behavior:

“Mass media campaigns, by and large, are ineffective at changing behavior,” he says. “The research is really consistent in showing that what you’ll get is raised awareness—and that’s about it.

Much more effective are more active strategies that encourage people to make changes to their living situations, like rebates for replacing grass lawns or old, wasteful fixtures. “That’s where you’re going to see long-term, lasting change,” says Schultz, “rather than a short-term, immediate response you get from a billboard.”

Perhaps the cities and states running such campaigns don’t know that their marketing ploys won’t really work. But, I assume they do know this – and maybe it doesn’t matter whether it works or not. At the least, the marketing allows them to say they tried to make people aware. If the public didn’t respond appropriately, then it isn’t necessarily the government’s faulty. Plus, this kind of marketing can be rolled out fairly quickly while more effective strategies for changing behaviors may take much longer. Many elected officials have a short-term view (elections are always coming up soon) though dealing with conservation isn’t just about the immediate drought but rather also avoiding droughts in the future.

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