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Does Media Coverage of Climate Change Affect Sustainable Product Consumption? Research Says Yes

Yubo Chen, Mrinal Ghosh, Yong Liu and Liang Zhao

As concerns about climate change and global warming increase, consumers are seeking alternatives that are consistent with sustainable consumption. In turn, it is important for both firms and policy makers to understand the drivers of the adoption and diffusion of sustainable products like hybrid automobiles. Previous research, for instance, has focused on the impact of financial drivers like gasoline process and tax incentives through deductions and exemptions on the demand for hybrid vehicles that provide better fuel economy.

In our study, which will appear in the December 2019 Journal of Marketing Research, we investigate the influence of another critical factor on hybrid vehicle sales—namely, the role of mass media. Mass media outlets such as newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV provide a unique voice in the marketplace that supplies society with news and reports that are fundamentally different from firm-initiated marketing communications; as such, mass media coverage of crucial issues can have a major social influence. In particular, we focus on how media coverage of climate change or global warming affects the sales of hybrid vehicles in the United States.

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The key novelty in our work is that the mass media reports of climate change or global warming are general in nature; that is, they are not specifically related to either a product category (automobile) or any specific products within the category (firms or vehicle models). This helps us isolate the impact of broad social movements created by mass media coverage on sustainable consumption, even if the coverage is independent of firm-centric and industry-centric marketing actions. Our key argument is that in the context of sustainable products like hybrid vehicles, mass media—through coverage of climate change or global warming—helps the generation and enforcement of a social norm regarding desirable socially conscious behavior even when the coverage does not refer to a particular product class or brand within a class as a solution. Such a social norm not only reduces the private disutility that consumers face (because hybrid vehicles are more expensive than their conventional counterparts), but also enhances the private utility that consumers get (by providing them with a symbolic status from socially desirable purchase and consumption). This norm generation and enforcement role is how mass media coverage can impact consumer behavior and positively influence market-wide purchase of hybrid vehicles.

To test our hypothesis, we focused on the sale of hybrid vehicles in the United States from 1999 (when hybrid vehicles were first introduced there) through 2007. The data consisted of sales of 10 models sold by three automotive manufacturers—Toyota, Honda, and Ford. Our measure of mass media coverage was the number of news articles containing either climate change or/and global warming in 12 major media outlets. We used content analysis to check to what extent climate change/global warming was the central focus of each article as well as to code the sentiments expressed in terms of whether each article admits, denies, or is neutral to climate change or global warming as an environmental concern.

Our results provide robust evidence that media coverage of climate change or global warming has a strong positive impact on the sales of hybrid vehicles. Equally importantly, we find that this positive impact mainly comes from media coverage that admits rather than denies climate change or global warming. In contrast, media coverage that either takes a neutral stand or denies climate change or global warming has little impact on hybrid vehicle sales. In addition, we find that media coverage that mentions social norm, versus coverage that does not mention social norm, has a positive impact on hybrid vehicle sales. This suggests that media coverage, through its advocacy of a social norm, can create a social movement toward environmentally friendly behavior.

A key insight from our work is that companies selling products that are desirable from a societal point of view (e.g., environmentally friendly sustainable products) should complement their marketing activities that focus on the products with proactively working with the media on creating awareness of the broader social issue and generating a social norm regarding desirable socially conscious behavior.

Read the full article here.

Yubo Chen, Mrinal Ghosh, Yong Liu, and Liang Zhao (2019), “Media Coverage of Climate Change and Sustainable Product Consumption: Evidence from Hybrid Vehicle Market,” Journal of Marketing Research, 56 (December).

Yubo Chen is Senior Associate Dean, Professor, and Director of Center for Internet Development and Governance at School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University.

Mrinal Ghosh is Eller Professor of Marketing, Eller College of Management, University of Arizona.

Yong Liu is Eller Professor of Marketing, Eller College of Management, University of Arizona.

Liang Zhao is Associate Professor of Marketing, St. Ambrose University.