"Negative" Advocacy Messages Boost Recycling, UB Study Finds

By Sue Wuetcher

Release Date: November 28, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Negativity isn't always bad. In fact, when it comes to encouraging consumer recycling, advocacy messages that are negative are more effective than messages that are positively framed, a researcher at the University at Buffalo has found.

And a negative message from a personal acquaintance is the most effective, Kenneth R. Lord, assistant professor of marketing, found in a study in which UB students were assigned to examine the contents of their neighbors' curbside recycling bins.

Lord's study of 140 households throughout metropolitan Buffalo -- the results of which were published recently in Psychology and Marketing --was the first recycling study to include direct observations of recycling behavior; previous studies had only gauged recycling attitudes.

The UB study, in addition to surveying attitudes, looked at behavior by "seeing what people actually do, rather than just what they say they will do," Lord said.

Students from UB's introductory marketing course counted the number of articles -- including newspapers, aluminum cans and other paper products -- placed in curbside recycling bins. Each student kept track of three households, collecting data for two consecutive garbage pick-ups -- one before and one after distribution of a "recycling message" to the households.

The messages were either positively framed -- emphasizing the "relative benefits associated with compliance" and focusing on environmental benefits, saving the community and personal satisfaction arising from recycling -- or negatively framed -- drawing attention to "the detriments associated with rejection" of recycling, such as exceeding the capacity of landfills, endangering the beauty of surroundings and health concerns.

The messages were delivered to the households via a letter from a personal acquaintance, an ad attributed to a fictitious company claiming to be a distributor of environmentally friendly products, or a piece that was described as having appeared recently in a local news publication.

A control group of "unexposed households" received no messages.

Lord found that an advocacy message from a personal acquaintance elicited a significantly greater increase in recycling behavior than a comparable message from an advertising or news source.

And households receiving negatively framed messages from acquaintances showed the greatest recycling behavior, recycling an average of 7.68 additional items after receiving the message than they had the previous week. All other households on average placed at most three more items in their recycling bins.

"The negative message talks more about the consequences of failure, and may have more of a veiled social effect than a positively framed message, which does not," Lord said, adding that the personal contact plays on the fear of social disapproval.

He discovered that a dichotomy exists between what affects recycling behavior and what affects attitudes toward recycling.

The study found that positive appeals yielded the most favorable levels of beliefs toward recycling. Those exposed to the positively framed message exhibited a significantly higher level of belief in the message's rationale for participation in the community recycling program than did either the control subjects or those receiving negatively framed messages.

"The positive message suggested that readers could benefit society and the environment by recycling, an idea they could comfortably accept. On the other hand, the negative message suggested that by failing to recycle, they would be harming society and the environment, an uncomfortable thought that may make them defensive," Lord says.

The results of the study highlight the need to attend to both persuasion and behavior in order to increase consumer compliance with recycling programs, Lord noted, adding that combining the strategies may offer results surpassing those generated by each of the strategies alone.

He said that in future studies, he would like to examine behavior over a longer time period to challenge the "issue of durability."

The negative message may simply wear off or be forgotten if it is not repeated, he said.