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‘Lifetime’ savings not best way to sway consumers on green products

September 28th, 2011

From Green Right Now Reports

A University of Arkansas study suggests that “lifetime” savings claims on product labels are not the most effective method to reach consumers regarding the benefits and potential savings from using energy-efficient products.

Ronn Smith, University of Arkansas

Instead, the study’s authors – Ronn Smith, assistant professor of marketing in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and Andrea Tangari, former doctoral student in the Walton College and now assistant professor at Wayne State University – found that messages that boast of more immediate benefits will influence more people.

Their finding is important because manufacturers and marketers struggle to convince consumers of the financial and environmental benefits of purchasing energy-efficient products. Savings claims on product packaging have had only dubious effect on attitudes about products and purchase intentions.

Smith and Tangari assessed the effects of temporal frames – “distal” measured in years or lifetime and “proximal” measured in months – on attitudes about product choice, purchase intentions and perception of savings. To do this, they conducted two experiments on consumer attitudes about compact fluorescent light bulbs. According to U.S. Department of Energy estimates, if every person in the United States replaced one incandescent light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb, consumers would collectively save more than $600 million in annual energy expenses and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of approximately 800,000 automobiles.

The first experiment compared compact fluorescent to incandescent bulbs. The comparison included a picture of each bulb, the cost ($0.99 for the incandescent and $3.75 for the compact fluorescent) of each and additional information about how much consumers would save if they were to purchase the compact fluorescent bulb. The second experiment included a product sheet with a picture of only a 60-watt compact fluorescent bulb in its packaging. Labels on the packages offered two temporal framing conditions, one indicating the average amount of savings per month and one indicating the average amount of savings over the lifetime of the bulb.

But before presenting product comparisons, the researchers determined whether participants were predisposed to focus their attention on the present or future, because previous research has demonstrated that such “temporal orientation” influences behavior and can affect attitudes about consumption. Smith and Tangari wanted to understand influence of temporal orientation on both distal and proximal framing.

The researchers found that the best temporal frame to use in messages regarding potential savings was one that focused on benefits that consumers experienced soon, stated usually as “months” rather than years or the lifetime of a product, which was about seven years for compact fluorescent bulbs. The findings held even when savings figures on packaging were significantly less, including amounts less than a dollar, than the temporally distant figures.

“Our survey used language indicating that a person would save an average of only $0.55 a month in electricity expenses if he or she used a compact fluorescent bulb,” Smith said. “Stating the claim for a small amount of savings as temporally near rather than a large amount of savings as temporally distant influenced a larger group of people.”

Results also indicated that future-oriented people were much more likely to buy a compact fluorescent bulb based on the lifetime savings message. However, these same consumers did not discount near-temporal frames. In other words, they considered the savings benefits, stated in smaller amounts, on a monthly basis as did the present-oriented consumers.

“Present- and future-oriented consumers appeared to have similar evaluations given a near temporal frame of savings,” Smith said. “The findings suggested that both future- and present-oriented people reacted similarly to messages with the most proximal temporal frame. Again, only the future-oriented consumers had more positive evaluations when the temporal frame was in the distant future.”

Smith said he hopes their findings will help manufacturers consider more effective ways to communicate savings and efficiency of products and to motivate consumers to purchase items that are more efficient and better for the environment.

“Widespread use of these products will be better for society in general as people will consume less energy,” Smith said. “We think these experiments provide some guidance to practitioners as to how to package and present energy-efficient products to enable people to make better choices that will benefit them and the environment.”

The researchers’ study will be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychology & Marketing.

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