Earth Day: How to improve your climate communication to accelerate behaviour change

Learn what neuroscience says about what works and what doesn’t across the business, government and non-profit sectors. 

Each day this April, Brainsights has published insights into how our unconscious minds respond to climate-related communications. 


We’ve looked at communications and content from three broad sectors:


Brainsights analyzed communications related to the benefits of green spaces, the appeal of public transit, and the shift to wind energy, as well as plastics, oceans, wildlife, recycling, energy conservation and what you can do about climate change at home and at work.

 We looked at the brain’s response to messages urging us to change the way we thinktake small steps to save the world, and educate us on the basics of climate change.

We even published insights from plastic water bottle advertising to show the competing forces at play in our mind pushing and pulling us one way or another. 


The data from 2,528 brains across 26 different pieces of video communications inform these insights (you can find them all on our blog). And we’ve developed a guide to help people analyze these charts themselves, in the hopes that we might empower readers to uncover insights and put these to good use. 


We believe that climate change is the single greatest threat to our world. We also believe that there are huge benefits to be gained by analyzing the unconscious mind’s response to communications. By making this data available, we hope to contribute meaningfully to the adoption of greener lifestyles and policies. 


Here are 6 things we’ve learned so far about climate communications and how people process this content:


1)    People are primed to act. 

  • More than half of all climate communications analyzed show above average Encoding to Memory levels. This suggests that people are primed to receive this messaging, and they remember key information. BUT

2)    Climate change communications do not galvanize action as well as they could. 

  • Climate change communication struggle to break through and resonate with people: fewer than 40% of climate communications deliver above average Attention scores. 

  • Climate change communications struggle to resonate with people: just 1/3 of climate communications elicit above average emotional Connection scores.

  • This suggests two things: 1) a need for greater media coverage and intensity to ensure the topic is top of mind with the general public; 2) creativity in climate communications to ensure that people are galvanized to act. 

Note: Strong Attention, Connection and Encoding scores together have been proven to influence behaviour and action.

3)    People are persuaded by the demonstrable actions of organizations 

  • Communications that focus on the actions of organizations – what they are doing, or what they could or should be doing – in addressing climate change, outperforms that which focuses on what actions individuals should take. Two of the best performing spots analyzed were from the Ontario Government (spelling out its climate action plan for communities) and the US EPA PSA (what you can do about climate change at work). Both of these focus on what an organization is doing (Ontario government) or should do (EPA PSA).

  • But there’s a more disturbing interpretation of this data, which is that individuals may be reluctant to act if it’s not in a coordinated fashion, preferring instead to defer responsibility to others. An illustrative example is the performance of the US EPA’s PSAs of what people can do about climate change at work and at home, where the former delivers 13% greater Attention, 26% greater emotional Connection and 36% greater Encoding to memory than the latter. However, the disengagement we observe in response to cynical and profiteering views of climate change suggest that there’s a desire on the part of people to see meaningful organizational action.


How can climate communications be improved?


4)    Be clear, straightforward and matter-of-fact. 

5)    Sell the benefits of behaviour change  

Moments and ads that feature the benefits of behaviour change consistently resonate with people. Examples of this include the following:

6)    Use clever humour instead of scare tactics.

  • South Korea’s Ministry of the Environment delivers an effective spot about recycling that connects an aluminum can with a brand new car in a clever and humorous way.

  • The GO Bus takes a clever and humorous approach to ‘the launch’ of the Bus transportation at the 2019 auto show in Toronto, delivering strong moments through this tongue-in-cheek approach.

  • Conservation International’s spots with Liam Neeson as Ice and Reese Witherspoon as Home take the perspective of a human embodying a natural phenomenon (Ice, Nature, etc). These fail to meaningfully persuade.  

  • Horror show of “Save Mankind”, which also uses a human to embody the planet, struggles to meaningfully engage. 


The problem of climate change is much bigger and more complex than something communications can address. But communication means more than just advertising and entertainment – it is advocacy, education, awareness, information, and the presentation of options and opportunities. By understanding how the unconscious mind processes this content, we can generate insights and actions that improve the effectiveness of climate communications and their potential for positive outcomes. 


Stay tuned to our blog for the next week, as we look at more green transportation options, as well as how Canadian brains respond to news coverage of climate change.