An Expose on Green Television Ads

Easwar Iyer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Bobby Banerjee, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Charles Gulas, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
ABSTRACT - We present the results from content analyzing 95 green TV ads. Although firm conclusions may be elusive because of sample characteristics, some very striking patterns emerge. For instance most green ads pertain to domestic consumables, are very shallow in their orientation, use women spokespersons and a testimonial format. A significant number of ads also attempt to influence consumer behavior and these tend to be more deep in their orientation. There are a also striking differences between green print ads and green TV ads in terms of their structure, strategy and tactics.
[ to cite ]:
Easwar Iyer, Bobby Banerjee, and Charles Gulas (1994) ,"An Expose on Green Television Ads", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 292-298.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 292-298


Easwar Iyer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Bobby Banerjee, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Charles Gulas, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

[We thank Robert Rehak of Ogilvy & Mather for providing the ads analyzed in this study.]


We present the results from content analyzing 95 green TV ads. Although firm conclusions may be elusive because of sample characteristics, some very striking patterns emerge. For instance most green ads pertain to domestic consumables, are very shallow in their orientation, use women spokespersons and a testimonial format. A significant number of ads also attempt to influence consumer behavior and these tend to be more deep in their orientation. There are a also striking differences between green print ads and green TV ads in terms of their structure, strategy and tactics.


Concern among American consumers for the biophysical environment is not only growing rapidly but is here to stay. According to a comprehensive follow-up study conducted in 1992, The Roper Organization states " . . . while Americans are somewhat less focused on the environment now C and more worried about recession, unemployment, and rising health care costs, among other economic woes C their environmental concerns have not dissipated. Far from it." (Roper Organization, 1992, p. 1). Another expert who has tracked the publics concern for the environment writes that there is continued interest in the environment and that the " . . . recent surge in environmental concern is not a passing fad" (Rehak, 1992, p. 251). Witness, for instance, the near doubling of the True-Blue Green segment from 11% to 20% between 1990 and 1992 (List, 1993, Roper Organization, 1992). The True-Blue Green segment consists of the greenest consumers in terms of their environmental attitudes and behaviors (Roper Organization, 1992; 1990). More and more marketers are targeting this segment because of the four advantages it offers: first, this is a large segment even now and for that reason alone is worth pursuing; second, this segment is rapidly growing and therefore it is advisable to develop marketing programs fostering an association with it; third, this segment consists of the most lucrative and desirable consumers in that they are very affluent and highly educated; and fourth, this segment is the leading edge in the innovation adoption process because of its demographic and psychographic characteristics , and therefore will be a strong influence on the trailing segments.

To target the green consumer marketers have responded in different ways, including designing new products (Hinds, 1987), repositioning existing products (Bremner, 1989), creating a new corporate image (Iyer and Banerjee, 1992). Among the different marketing activities, one of the most visible has been the explosion in green advertising, both in print and television media. Unfortunately, this explosion in green advertising has not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in the number of scholarly studies on the subject issue (Kangun, Carlson, and Grove, 1991). Part of the reason for the paucity in scholarly work could be the absence of a framework to categorize green advertising. Iyer and Banerjee (1992) addressed that very question and developed a framework to categorize green print ads. We propose to expand on their framework and present a new scheme to analyze green TV ads.

1.0 The Analytical Framework

Iyer and Banerjee (1992) proposed and used a framework to analyze green print ads. We could not directly apply their framework in our context since we were analyzing TV ads and their framework was developed for print ads. Thus, we had to adapt their original framework to conform to our current needs. A detailed listing of all the categories used in this study is provided in Table 1 following a brief description of a select few.

In terms of the ad's structure we were interested in who the sponsor was, the type of product promoted, the degree of greenness, and the type of characters portrayed. [In case of a corporate ad, the product being promoted was the company's name/image.] Next, we categorized the advertiser's strategy, i.e., the objectives or goals implied in the ad. There were four separate objectives that we identified: first, a sponsor's attempt to position the product/service as green; second, a sponsor's attempt to present the corporate entity as green; third, a sponsor's attempt to influence viewers' future behavior; and fourth, a sponsor's attempt to enlist viewers' support either by becoming a member of the sponsoring organization or through a donation to the sponsoring organization. In coding tactics we expanded on the scheme used by Iyer and Banerjee (1992) and proposed seven categories. The first category, zeitgeist, was used to identify those ads that merely jumped on the green bandwagon; all ads with an emotional appeal were placed in the second category; ads emphasizing financial aspects were in the third category; the fourth category captured ads using euphoria as a tactic; the fifth category, management, was used to identify ads in which the sponsoring organization emphasized control or social responsibility; all forms of testimonials were classified in the sixth category; and ads using comparison as an appeal were placed in the seventh and final category. Lastly, we developed six new categories to identify the substantive issues emphasized by sponsors of green television ads. The five issues of atmosphere, land, water, animal life, and plant life have been identified and accepted as the most salient ones in environmental marketing (Iyer and Banerjee, 1992; Ottman, 1991). We added a sixth category, catch-all, to define those ads that referred to more than one substantive issue. The details of the analytical framework used in this study including the main taxonomy, main categories and sub-categories is provided below.

2.0 The Sample

Our sample was drawn from a large pool of green ads that were recorded by Ogilvy and Mather during 1991-1992 for other purposes. We defined an ad to be green if any part of the ad C headline, copy, or voiceover C referred to any aspect of the biophysical environment C atmosphere, land, water, animal life, or plant life C and there was an explicit effort to portray the sponsor or its offering as being sensitive and responsive to any aspect of the biophysical environment. This definition excludes ads that merely allude to nature more as a backdrop than in an active sense. Our definition, in that sense, is somewhat more restrictive than the one generally used in trade circles, although we hasten to note that there is no well accepted definition of green advertising. According to the more inclusive definition, an ad would be green even if the sponsor or its offering was green only by implication without a clear cut claim (Kangun, Carlson, and Grove, 1991). As stated earlier, we were more restrictive and required the claim to be explicit in terms of how the sponsor or its offering interacted with the biophysical environment. One of our motives in adopting a stringent definition was to ensure that the two coders had a high degree of agreement in their independent identification of a green ad. Secondly, it was important to be consistent with the definition used by Iyer and Banerjee (1992) since we were adapting their framework to analyze these TV ads. Moreover, our stringent definition does not pose any problems since its only impact was to limit the size of our sample; in fact some of our conclusions are even more striking because of our stringent definition.




Two viewers independently viewed the entire pool of ads and identified an ad to be green or otherwise. One viewer identified 95 ads as being green; the second viewer identified a subset of only 92 ads as being green. In other words there was complete agreement on 92 ads with only 3 ads being discrepant. Upon discussion they both agreed that there were indeed 95 green ads; these ads constituted our sample.

3.0 Coding : Intercoder Reliability

Two of the researchers served as coders of the ads analyzed in this study. At first they became familiar with the analytical framework by discussing the categories among themselves and with the principal investigator. Next, they identified the green ads to be analyzed from a larger pool of taped ads. This step has already been described. After agreeing on the set of ads to be analyzed, each coder independently categorized each ad. This was followed by a comparison of the two codings. At this stage, differences were resolved through discussion; the final results are based upon the coding categories determined after such discussion. Inter-coder reliability, measured as percentage agreement, varied from a low of 73% (Greenness of Ad) to a high of 96% (Strategy); this procedure and the agreement rates are consistent with those adopted by other researchers doing similar work (Gilly, 1988) and recommended by experts in content analysis (Kassarjian, 1977)

4.0 Descriptive Analyses

Our first step was to analyze the frequency distribution of the four main categories in our taxonomy, i.e., Structure, Strategy, Tactic, and Issues.

4.1 Structure

There were four main categories within structural factors, i.e., Advertiser, Product, Level of Greenness, and Characters Portrayed in an Ad; we analyzed their frequency distribution. The following pie-charts (Figure 1) show that manufacturers, followed by nonprofit agencies, were the largest sponsors of green TV advertising and corporations, followed by household consumables, were the most frequently advertised items.



Likewise, we analyzed the greenness of an ad as well as the type of characters portrayed in it. We have adapted the concepts of deep and shallow ecology proposed by Naess (1973) while categorizing the greenness of an ad. The distinction between deep and shallow ecology is a function of the varying degree of involvement in green behaviors; some are enduring and deep while other are more superficial. For example, driving a small car instead of a big car, thereby expending less energy and causing less environmental pollution, would be considered an example of green behavior. Alternatively, using a bicycle instead of a car Cany size carC would also be a symbol of being green. In the context of these two scenarios, downsizing the car would reflect a relatively shallow involvement in a green lifestyle since that choice merely reduces, without completely eliminating, the negative impact on the environment whereas riding a bicycle instead of a car would reflect deeper involvement in a green lifestyle since, presumably, the negative impact on the environment has been eliminated.

Likewise one could conceptualize greenness of an ad being on a continuum varying from shallow to deep. Three categories, rather than a dichotomy, better captures a continuum; therefore we categorized greenness of an ad into three: shallow, moderate, and deep. The frequency distribution of greenness of an ad is as shown in figure 2. It is quite obvious that there are very few green ads that are deep. This is hardly surprising, since, our expectation, based on Iyer and Banerjee (1992) was that there would be a lot of shallow green ads. It is therefore pleasantly surprising that the vast majority of green ads are at least moderate in their greenness. Two reasons can be offered to explain the unexpected findings. First, television is a medium that is better suited than print to add realism to a depiction; thus one would expect to find more TV ads that are moderate to deep as compared to print ads. Second, the television ads used in this study are more recent than the print ads used by Iyer and Banerjee (1992); with the ever growing public concern and increased government regulation, as discussed earlier, sponsors may have begun to produce more green ads.

The categorization of characters used in an ad is self-explanatory. The motivation to study portrayal of characters stems from Balch (1992) who suggested that the use of children would personalize the concept of conserving for the future. Overall, almost three in four ads use live characters instead of animals or cartoon figures. When "real" people are portrayed in an ad, most often it tends to be male dominant, although female dominant and child(ren) dominant ads are also fairly frequent. It is interesting that child(ren) dominant ads are used fairly frequently (15%) and slightly more so than female dominant ads (14%). Although a longitudinal analysis on a broader sample will be required to test Balch's (1992) hypothesis that children best personalize the concept of future, the relatively high frequency of child(ren) dominant ads provides it with oblique support. (Figure 3).



4.2 Strategy

The frequency distribution of the four categories of strategy is shown in figure 4. It is clear that the most dominant strategy was to position the corporation as being green. Changing consumer values and government regulations may have forced corporations to put on a new green face themselves and be consistent with the times.

This was followed by two strategies, i.e., influencing viewer behavior (29%) and positioning the product/service as green (26%), that were used almost equally frequently. Soliciting viewer support came in last (5%).

4.3 Tactics

The frequency distribution of the seven tactics categories is as shown in figure 5. The most frequently used tactic (37%) was the one emphasizing management control and responsibility. This was followed by emotional appeals (27%) and testimonials (15%) with other kinds of appeals being used only sporadically.

4.4 Issues

The frequency distribution of the six categories of issues emphasized in the ads is represented in the pie-chart shown in figure 6. The data suggest that most ads (42%) focused on more than one issue in their message. However, the single issue most frequently addressed was land (27%), implying a primary focus on solid waste disposal. Land was followed by water (12%) and other less frequently used issues. Our finding is consistent with the prevalent belief that land is scarce and that landfills are often abused and misused.

5.0 Themes in Green TV Advertising

The simple descriptive analysis showed that most green ads on TV were sponsored by manufacturers, tended to promote corporate image or personal and household consumables, were typically moderate in depth, and used "real" persons more often than not. This picture gets clarified and new patterns emerge when more detailed analyses are performed. For instance, we cross-tabulated the type of advertiser with the greenness of an ad; we linked the types of issues most often associated with the type of product advertised, and so on. Likewise we did other cross-tabulations, wherever meaningful, in an effort to relate different factors within the analytical framework. Space limitations precludes us from reporting each and every result; moreover not all the relationships were interesting or revealing. Rather, we have chosen to elaborate upon a few themes that we believe are interesting and worthy of reporting.


5.1 Advertiser & Greenness

The greenness of an ad seemed to vary with the type of advertiser. Manufacturers' ads were generally shallower than those employed by nonprofit organizations. In coming to this conclusion, we hasten to note that quite a significant share (42.6%) of manufacturers' ads were moderately green although it was significantly lower than the proportion of nonprofit corporate ads (95%) that were moderately green. Our sample included ads from nonprofit organizations such as World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and Nature Conservancy. These organizations are household names in terms of being synonymous with green issues; it is, therefore, hardly surprising that they sponsor green ads that are deeper than those of manufacturers.

5.2 Advertiser & Tactics

The result of this cross-tabulation was also very interesting. Most manufacturers (44.2%) adopted management control or social responsibility as their tactic. A typical message would include some mention of how the company was responsible or proactively involved in environmental issues. On the other hand, nonprofit organizations almost exclusively (65%) used emotional appeals. Within the category of emotional appeals, the type "you make a difference" was by far the most frequently used (65%). This result is consistent with the model that businesses, in general, and manufacturers, in particular, are under pressure from consumers, regulators, and activists to show social responsibility, whereas nonprofit organizations, some of which are the very activist organizations bringing pressure on businesses, have to legitimize their existence by appealing to and including consumers in their activist agendas.

5.3 Product & Greenness

The most widely advertised "product" was the corporate entity itself; this was followed by household consumables as the second most frequently advertised product. We found that while corporate ads were moderately green (65%), those for the household consumables were typically shallow (65%). Our result seems to suggest that creation of a corporate image, being amorphous at best, necessitates the use of a message that is at least moderately deep, for otherwise the effort may not produce the desired image. On the other hand, since a product's relationship with the environment is far more tangible, a shallow message might suffice to position it as green. Alternatively, it could be that product managers hesitate using deeper messages lest their product might alienate the mainstream whereas corporate managers, sensing a major permanent trend, adopt deeper messages.

5.4 Product & Tactics

As mentioned earlier, most often the advertised "product" was the corporation itself; in this event, the vast majority (57%) of the ads used management control and social responsibility as the basis of appeal in the message. Household consumables were the second most frequently advertised products; in this case, the form of appeal used most often (45%) was a testimonial. It is interesting to note that a testimonial of an everyday consumer, rather than that of an expert or a celebrity, was the one most commonly (78%) used. This is unlike "regular" advertising in which superstars dominate when testimonials and endorsements are used as a tactic. One of the reasons for the difference could be that superstars are more sensitive to being associated with a green product through their testimonial. Even more interesting was the fact that most often (89%) such testimonials were from women, typically in the role of a homemaker. This could be because most of the testimonials were for household products such as laundry detergents, dishwashing soap, and these products are still perceived to be feminine (Iyer and Debevec, 1989; Debevec and Iyer, 1986).

5.5 Product & Issues

When the corporate entity was the "product" being advertised, most ads (52%) focused on multiple environmental issues, whereas when household consumables were advertised, most ads (55%) focused solely on land as the issue of concern. To borrow a metaphor commonly used in marketing principles courses, some communication programs are like shot-guns and spray their target while others are like rifles and clearly focus on their target. In that vein, it appears that corporate advertising is like a shot-gun and ads for consumables are more akin to a rifle.

5.6 Strategy & Greenness

Of the ads whose primary strategy was to position the product/service as green, the vast majority (64%) were shallow, whereas of all the ads whose primary strategy was to influence viewer behavior or enlist viewer support, the overwhelming majority (94%) were moderately green. It appears that advertisers shy away from positioning their product/services using moderately deep or very deep green messages lest they are viewed as radical thereby alienating the mainstream market. On the other hand, ads used to influence viewer behavior were almost always at least moderately green, if not deep. Moderately deep messages may have to be used to motivate viewers since shallow messages may not provide the impetus needed to influence behavior or enlist support. Interestingly enough, if the strategy was to position a corporation as green, there are about an equal number of shallow (54%) and moderately deep (46%) messages. Although we cannot draw firm conclusions, it would seem that certain corporations are more likely to want to be portrayed as green as compared to others; those would be the ones with the moderately deep green messages. Yet others who might not want to be tagged as a "green corporation" use green messages that are relatively shallow, perhaps fearful of the consequences of using a green message that was deep.

6.0 What's the Point: Conclusion and Limitations

Our analysis showed that most of the green ads on television attempted to position the corporation or a household consumable as green. The corporate ads typically were either shallow or moderate in their greenness and focused on multiple environmental issues in the copy. Ads for household consumables typically tended to be shallow in their greenness and focused almost exclusively on land pollution as the issue of concern. As was expected, most corporate ads used management control or social responsibility as their bases for appeal. Typically, ads for household consumables used testimonials C most often that of an everyday person, very likely a female in the role of a homemaker C as their basis for appeal.

The television commercials studied here differed from the print ads examined by Iyer and Banerjee (1992). The most notable difference was that the TV ads tended to use zeitgeist or bandwagon tactic far less frequently as compared to print ads. Further, TV ads tended to focus on specific substantive issues and were likely to be at least moderately deep in terms of the greenness of the message. Part of the reason for the differences between green print and TV ads in terms of the tactics and issues emphasized could be the differences between the two media themselves. Television is more amenable to deeper portrayals; after all the amount of dialog in an average TV ad far exceeds the amount of copy in a typical print ad. Further, TV ads are dynamic whereas print ads are static. Yet another factor could be that the TV ads analyzed in this paper were more recent. With increasing pressure on businesses, both from consumers and government, it is possible that corporations are more willing to spend "greenbacks" to improve their corporate or product's "greenness".

Our findings and the themes that we have presented must be tempered by the fact that they were based on a convenience sample. Moreover, the interpretive nature of our analysis, notwithstanding the high inter-coder reliability, warrants caution in reading our conclusions. Further studies along these lines will help in reaching more firm conclusions.


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