Success in communicating scientific information to the lay public on environmental issues, including climate change, is essential in affecting public policy. Currently, advertising and public relations campaigns are used by organizations advocating both for and against policy change, with messages from both sides relying heavily on values appeals. Current research, however, provides little insight into how the public responds to values-based environmental appeals, regardless of whether they are in support of policy change or not. Data from a national representative sample supports a model in which the effectiveness of industry environmental advocacy ads depends on perceptions of industry accountability and message trustworthiness. Surprisingly, the people expected to be most critical of the ads were in fact most persuaded; environmental concern, a measure of values, was positively correlated with message acceptance, and the expected correlation—that strong environmental concern would cause an individual to be more critical of pro-industry environmental advocacy—was only true for experts (i.e., individuals with graduate degrees, a background in science or membership in an environmental organization). Seeking to raise the salience of public environmental concern may not only be an ineffective strategy, but potentially detrimental to environmental causes. Instead, strategy focusing on accountability and trust is recommended to influence public opinion on environmental policy.
Janas Sinclair is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on communication and persuasion processes for topics related to science, technology, and the environment. She was previously an Associate and Assistant Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and an assistant professor at Florida International University. Her Ph.D. is from the University of Florida College of Journalism and Mass Communications.