The Energy of Language
By David Fenton
Text of presentation given at the U.S. Department of Energy on July 14, 2001 in Washington, D.C. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Let me first establish some credentials. I founded and still run Fenton, the nation's oldest and largest public interest communications firm for the past 30 years. Energy and environment are among our primary issues, along with public health, women's rights and international development.
And I'm a bit of an energy nut myself. I had the first grid-connected photovoltaic house in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where I thrilled watching my electric meter run backwards. I drive a Ford Fusion hybrid, which is a great car by the way at 40 miles to the gallon. Recently I changed all my windows to the super-insulating R 11 windows from Serious Materials – until they came along, the best windows had an insulating value of only 2. My fuel bill plummeted and our comfort increased. I have an internet-connected thermostat so I can dial the heat or cooling down when I'm not home, right from my blackberry. If the geeks here want, I can show you later.
I'd like to talk to you today about how to motivate the public to participate avidly in your energy efficiency programs.
That means starting with language.
To motivate people to save energy, we have to pay much more attention to the impact of our words, slogans and images on the brains of homeowners.
With all respect to the organizers of this event and all of you, the name Retrofit Rampup doesn't motivate. Neither does the very concept of a “retrofit”.
Think of it. Would you like to be associated with something called RETRO? Words, we know from cognitive and neurological science, activate frames in the brain. Frames are collections of neurons which are fired when the brain processes a concept according to learned metaphors. RETRO isn't looking forward even if it FITS. Would you like to be retro? Would your kids like you to be retro? We've just activated a frame of looking backwards. Is that going to get people excited about borrowing money to save energy? So let's start by rethinking RETROFIT.
I haven't thought much about what to call it, but certainly we can do better. ForwardFit? Home Makeover Kit? Renovation or Home Improvement USA?
Next up, let's examine the phrase ENERGY EFFICIENCY.
Efficiency. Does that refer to the guy on the assembly line who measures your output for the boss? Or the computer program that measures how many calls a telemarketer completes in an hour? Ok, it's a beautiful concept to engineers, because it activates a different frame that has grown in their minds. But to most Americans, I submit it's a cold, heartless, unemotional term that does not motivate.
I truly believe the movement you represent to save residential energy is essential to the health, security and prosperity of our country. It's time to talk that way if we want the nation to follow. Plus it's the truth.
Years of research shows the best communications are simple, and use emotionally compelling language that speaks to the values of Americans. It isn't about the facts – talking to people about parts per million, carbon footprints (is that from Bigfoot?), cost per kilowatt hour, barrels of oil saved, tons of co2 -- it just doesn't work outside of policy circles and the fully committed. It's what we call wonkspeak. The idea that people make rational choices based on detailed facts just isn't true, as the behavioral economists and neuroscientists have repeatedly demonstrated. Emotions and values rule in the human species.
So here's a wild idea. DOE should consider changing Cathy Zoi's title. Right now it's Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewables. How about Energy Savings instead of Energy Efficiency? Certainly more people would be motivated to act by saving than efficiency. Renewables is not a term in common usage in America, and a lot of people still don't know what it means. How about Assistant Secretary for Energy Savings and Natural Energy? Or Energy that Never Runs Out? Or Energy Independence? I don't know the answer, but I do know we have to start thinking this way or those utilization rates will remain low.
There are some people in Washington who understand the psychoneurobiology of language. They brought us Clean Coal. The Death Tax. Death Panels. Big government. Tax and Spend. Now imagine harnessing this technique to advance something that's true and good for the nation.
Instead, again, sorry, I don't mean to be impolite to anyone here, we have PACE. Property Assessed Clean Energy. I'm asleep already, and so is the target audience. Worse, while the clean energy part sounds good, do I really want to be “assessed?” Doesn't that mean I have to pay more? Are you going to take my property? Do you see the problem? Wrong frame. A name that works on the inside, among your tribe, but doesn't work where it counts.
Or we have GREEN COLLAR JOBS. The research proves it – men do not want to wear green collars. They think it will make them look like sissies I guess. In fact, in America to a large extent men do not relate to Green anything. Women do, but after all women are an intelligent species. Yet despite the male aversion to the term, we keep calling things Green. Clean activates a frame – and a great one. So why green?
According to University of California linguist George Lakoff, opponents of the recent health care bill were almost able to kill reform by talking about freedom and death. Freedom from government control. Death panels deciding about Grandma. These are values-based terms and concepts that activate clear frames of opposition. And the use of these terms certainly succeeded in killing the so-called “public option.” What frames did the term “the public option” activate? Public – that stands for left-wing in America. It gave credence to the silly charge of socialism. Option – that tells the brain you don't really need it, it's OPTIONAL. No wonder it was stripped from the final bill. It was lost before the vote, in the very term itself.
We need to think this way to advance the utilization rates of all the great programs you are inventing. Language is power.
Psychologists and neuroscientists also call frames “networks of association.” According to Drew Westen of Emory University, “networks of association are interconnected sets of thoughts, feelings, images, metaphors and emotions that are unconsciously active in people's minds and brain at any given moment.” Including while they read, see a logo, hear a speech or watch tv.
So what values, frames, or networks of association should we think about activating in the target audiences for these programs, to get them to act?
While more quantitative work is needed to answer this question empirically, I think we have a pretty good idea already where to look.
We could start with savings. Savings are good. Everyone wants to save. But this isn't enough. We know from the data that cost savings alone are not enough to motivate people to sign up for these programs. For many people, the net dollar savings are not significant enough on an electrical bill that averages $100 a month.
Economists will tell you that if there is money lying in the street, someone will pick it up. Home energy improvements save people money – it's lying in the street. But not enough people are picking it up. What more do we need to show them?
First, savings are not just about money. There is a moral, values-based dimension to savings. Benjamin Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Oil and coal saved is oil and coal not produced. And energy saved is cheaper, much cheaper, than energy produced. Waste not want not. These are powerful frames in the American character, brought to us by the Puritans. Liberals and conservatives alike, no one likes waste. Research by Yale University shows that even those most dismissive of global warming science want very much to conserve energy. How can we use that aversion to waste in our messages and symbols?
Then there's the frame of patriotism. The less energy we use, the less money we send to hostile nations. Energy independence is good for our fighting men and women – less deployment abroad. And it means less money spent on defense, made available for investment in our future.
Patriotism is linked to pride in America. Less energy use at home is good for the country. The savings can be applied to other things the country needs – like a new, clean energy infrastructure. Or education. Or research and development.
There's health – one of the most powerful frames. Less energy use means less air pollution, less lung cancer, less asthma, healthier children, reduced mortality rates. Like during this heat wave and air pollution alert we are suffering today.
Or Prosperity. A very powerful frame, both individual and collective. Less energy use means keeping our money at home in America, making our country and its residents more prosperous. Its dollars to Middle America, not the Middle East. (Kudos for this last phrase to EcoAmerica's amazing research. Ecoamerica.org).
Or Jobs. Bill Clinton says renovating all our buildings for energy savings will pull us out of the recession. With jobs that can't be outsourced. Skilled jobs. (but please, not green jobs).
What about freedom? Saving energy gives us freedom from other nations, or oil and coal companies (or blowout preventers). It's reliance on American ingenuity and innovation. Freedom through self-sufficiency and self-reliance. This is perhaps the most bedrock American value of them all.
Morality is also a frame. And this is a deeply moral nation. How do we appeal to the moral issue – which is often as important, and sometimes more important, than the economic benefits. Less energy use gives our children a better future. It preserves our atmosphere for ourselves, our neighbors, and future generations. It is caring for our country, our children, God's creation and even ourselves.
We can also use the power of community. In China, elderly ladies inspect people's utility meters. If a family is using too much, they're criticized as energy hogs. In our country, OPower and SMUD (the Sacramento utility) have done something similar in comparing your energy use to your neighbor's on your monthly utility bill. And it worked – energy use went down. And while small savings in your home may not amount to much, the savings of your entire community and nation can be vast, and vastly motivating if put that way.
We did a campaign a few years ago that appealed to the moral frame. Perhaps you remember it. It was called, “What Would Jesus Drive?” The evangelicals behind it declared that “driving is a moral choice” as they promoted hybrid cars and urged people away from SUVs.
Some of you may remember “What Would Jesus Drive.” It had another attribute, besides activating the right frames. It was what we call “sticky.” A sticky concept or image does just that – it sticks in the brain. It is memorable and recallable. Our language, concepts and symbols should meet that standard. Which would you remember? Renewable energy? Or energy that lasts forever? See what I mean? For more on this, I highly recommend reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.
Another frame that we've seen work very well is comfort. Upgrading your home increases your comfort, gets rid of cold drafts, gives a consistent temperature, and often makes a home quieter. As the energy innovator Amory Lovins said, “People don't want heating fuel or coolant, people want cold beer and hot showers.”
What about talking about climate? Or carbon? Or the planet? Research shows this doesn't work so well. Talk of the planet sounds like those hippie environmentalists who care about animals and not people. In explaining why they liked Energy Star appliances, only 12% of those asked picked “because it protects the environment.”
In dial-tests, as soon as the word climate is mentioned, the meters plummet (again, especially among men). After all, in America right now multiple polls show 48% of the public believe that the climate is changing only from natural causes. Only a third believe humans have anything to do with it. More on that later.
So in reviewing some of the language you are using today, let's use what I've said so far to rate how some of you are doing, ok?
Here's some of what I found on the web from some of the programs represented in this room today.
Get Paid to Improve Your Home. That's a good one, right?
Likewise I saw PAYS – Pay As You Save. Gotta love those savings.
Green Homes. Oh boy, the guys will not go for this one.
Clean Energy Works. I believe this was Portland, Oregon. A plus. Clean. Works. Great frames.
Climate Smart. Sorry, only motivates true believers, and there aren't enough of them, at least not yet.
So what are your ideas for names? I'd love to hear in the q and a to follow, ok? Perhaps we should set up an online competition for the best ideas, symbols and language. Maybe we could do it in schools. Or an online contest among kids for the best ways to nudge their parents into saving energy, and the best reasons why. Or let's ask NBC's popular reality show The Biggest Loser to take on the home energy challenge. Do you want your community to be The Biggest Loser?
What this group is after is behavior change. Professor Ed Maibach runs the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He reports that in the academic literature on social marketing, people are motivated to change their behaviors, or purchase products, based on three broad categories of benefits. Functional benefits are what the behavior will do for me. Self-expressive benefits are what the product or behavior says about me. And self-evaluative benefits are how the product or behavior makes me feel about me.
Maibach's research shows that of course the functional benefits of saving energy, like saving money, are a nearly universal motivator. But many Americans are motivated to save energy for self-expressive benefits (I'm the kind of person who cares about my country, or reducing pollution) or self-evaluative reasons (I feel good about myself when I do this because it's the right thing to do).
So we must appeal to all three categories to motivate behavior change.
Maibach also reports that by a more than 2 to 1 margin, Americans believe that making changes to reduce their energy use will improve – not undermine – the quality of their lives. This is very good news. So we must not frame energy savings programs as sacrifice. And they need not be, after all.
I'd like to talk about another essential principle of communications that is next to language in importance, and hopefully will help guide your use of the DOE grants to save energy in your communities.
It's the principle of repetition.
People learn from repetition. So you must design communications plans that ensure a tremendous amount of repetition of your message, and the availability of your program.
Remember the Dial soap commercials? Originally they said, “Aren't you glad you use Dial? Don't you wish everybody did?”
Well after many years Dial dropped the second phrase. The ads just said, “Aren't you glad you use Dial?” Because by then there had been so much repetition that people said the second half, “don't' you wish everybody did?” to themselves. That's a successful marketing campaign.
So think about all the ways you can get repetitive visibility in your cities and towns. Through schools. Churches. Rotary. Kiwanis. Veterans groups. Mailboxes. Radio. Tv. Web sites. Social media. Gardening clubs. Leafletting the coffee shops. Through the utility and tax bills. In speeches by the Mayor and the City Council. With celebrities. Through advertising. Contests.
Design campaigns that go viral – this creates enormous repetition. “What Would Jesus Drive” went viral. It was all over the place, from newspapers to online to late night comedy. People were emailing it to all their friends. That's why it became well known.
Another campaign we did at Fenton that went viral was called Give Swordfish a Break. At the time, swordfish were going extinct. Boats were only catching baby swordfish, too young to reproduce. On behalf of Sea Web, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, we organized celebrity chefs who refused to serve any swordfish until the government put the nursing grounds for the fish off-limits.
This was mostly pre-internet. We had very little money – just a press conference with the chefs and a lot of news coverage. We bought one small ad in the NY Times -- it was a drawing of a swordfish with the sign “Try The Pasta” coming out of its sword.
All of a sudden, word spread. Restaurant and hotel chains, cruise lines, airlines – so many stopped serving swordfish that it fell off the list of the most-ordered seafood, and the price dropped by 30%. We had little organizing infrastructure – it was a self-organizing, grassroots explosion.
And it worked. The Department of Commerce put the nursing grounds off-limits, and swordfish has now recovered.
Now let's make saving energy a viral phenomenon in America. I am sure we can do it.
I'd like to close by looking at these principles up against the current state of perception about carbon dioxide and global warming in America today. I'll hazard a guess that most of you believe what is really fairly basic science and understand that we must change our energy system, and fast.
We've lost ground with public opinion on the science of climate change. Big time. Most people think there is vast disagreement among scientists. Almost half believe climate change is natural. Only a third believe it's caused by humans. These numbers have all gotten worse in the last few years as fossil fuel propaganda has become more and more dominant.
I believe one of the major reasons we aren't getting climate legislation is its opponents have succeeded in branding us as the people who will raise everyone's costs and hurt our fragile economy.
This is our fault. We've allowed them to control the message.
And it's so ironic, because the forces of business as usual on fossil energy will absolutely wreck the economy, while changing to a fuel-free, renewable energy system, properly financed over time, getting our cars off petroleum, and using less energy, will improve prosperity for all, as McKinsey and others have shown repeatedly.
Stick to business as usual, as the world economy recovers and all those drivers come onboard in China and India, and the price of gasoline will likely rise. How's that going to help the economy? Add the enormous costs of climate mitigation, sea walls, dealing with heat waves/fires/droughts and floods, and tell me who is going to hurt the economy?
But we don't talk this way. We let powerful interests dominate the discussion.
And we need a new language for the very concept of global warming. As Drew Westen of Emory and the pollster Celinda Lake have shown. What frame does “warming” activate? It sounds reassuring, right? Not destructive. Warmth is linked to getting in from the cold, hearth and home, comfort.
Plus, it sounds like a linear increase in temperature that people expect to be able to observe. Hence, during the snowstorms of last winter, pundits were quick to shout, look, there's no global warming. (I wonder what they're saying today with all the heat records being broken).
But there is a narrative that works. Here's how Professor Westen described it from his testing for EcoAmerica (I'm paraphrasing): We have a choice. We can move towards the safe, clean fuels of the 21st century – from the sun, wind and ground – fuels that will never run out, don't have to be burned, and will create jobs and prosperity. Or we can rely on the fossil fuels of the 19th century, which will run out, cost more and more over time to produce less and less, take jobs with them, threaten our economic and national security, and destroy the land and air as we extract and burn them – pouring pollutants into the air and destroying our atmosphere while altering the delicate balance of nature. We can restore American leadership, or we can abdicate it. We can lead the technological revolution, or leave it to Europe, Brazil or China. We can confront the pollution that is destroying our atmosphere, changing our weather patterns, and damaging our lungs – or we can ignore our sacred responsibilities to our children. It's our choice. It isn't a hard one.
Thank you very much.
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