“It’s kind of embarrassing,” Emmanuel of Oakland, California, responded when asked about carrying a reusable shopping bag. “It looks like a man-purse.”1
Emmanuel was part of a recent OgilvyEarth study entitled, Mainstream Green: Moving Sustainability from Niche to Normal, which investigated the discrepancy between Americans’ actions and intentions around sustainable living and shopping behaviors, otherwise known as the Green Gap. Drawing from interviews of environmental experts, ethnographies of urban consumers, and 1,800 survey respondents representative of the U.S. adult population, OgilvyEarth’s research confirmed that the Green Gap is driven partly by avoidance of the “crunchy granola hippy” and “rich elitist snob” images of going green.
What sparked media buzz, however, was OgilvyEarth’s conclusion that men like Emmanuel are often self-conscious about using canvas shopping bags, drinking from reusable water bottles, or driving Prius hybrids. Put simply, men saw green as too feminine. Among surveyed respondents, 85 percent said that they saw women as more involved than men in the environmental movement, and 82 percent said that going green was definitely more feminine than masculine. Indeed, when segmenting respondents by their green activities, women dominated the ranks of “Super Greens” whereas men were more often identified as “Green Rejecters.”
OgilvyEarth’s gender gap findings aren’t surprising. Past academic studies and polls have long found that women tend to express greater environmental responsibility than men.2-4 Given that moms do most of the shopping, cooking, and maintaining of households—controlling 85 percent of household spending5—green marketers have instinctively crafted their advertising and products to appeal to women. This strategy may be holding back the embrace of green behaviors by men.
Lessons from the famously successful Don’t Mess with Texas campaign are instructive in how green can be made more macho through message framing that connects sustainability and masculine values.
Don’t Mess with Texas
Some people think it’s the state motto, but Tim McClure of the Austin-based ad agency GSD&M first coined the ubiquitous Don’t Mess with Texas slogan as part of the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation’s 1985 anti-littering campaign.6 The slogan started out as a simple bumper sticker. The televised 1986 Cotton Bowl football game included blues music legend Stevie Ray Vaughan turning to his audience after a stirring rendition of “The Eyes of Texas” to drawl, “Don’t mess with Texas.” He had struck a chord. Fans went wild.
The campaign’s primary target—males aged 16 to 24 who had previously thought little about tossing trash on Texas roadways—were swayed. Don’t Mess with Texas bumper stickers appeared on pickup trucks across the state and, according to the Institute for Applied Research, within its first year, the campaign reduced roadside trash by 29 percent. By 1990, litter was reduced by more than 72 percent!
Vaughan and a parade of other star Texan musicians, athletes, actors, and comedians lent their talents to Don’t Mess with Texas commercials to broaden the appeal to these young men. Through music and humor, they told a story that trashing Texas was simply unbecoming of “real” Texans.
The catchphrase eventually appeared on everything from hats to apparel to coffee mugs. It became a punch line in movies, political campaigns, and sports. Don’t Mess with Texas was embedded in pop culture. The campaign endures today, exhibiting extremely high awareness and public understanding of the slogan’s meaning.7
Winning Hearts over Minds
Don’t Mess with Texas united a green behavior—anti-littering—with what was near and dear to the hearts of young macho Texans—Texas pride. The state’s tough history and self-reliant culture are exceptionally potent among young males, and the slogan cast litterers as “outsiders” or “imposters” insulting the honor of Texas.
Interestingly, not everyone liked Don’t Mess with Texas when it was first proposed. Representatives of Keep Texas Beautiful requested the slogan be tweaked to “Please don’t mess with Texas.” The idea was rejected. The slogan needed to be an acerbic decree, using the very same bristly patois respected and used by its audience.
In a 2006 retrospect on the campaign, McClure and his colleague Roy Spence wrote, “identifying the target audience and targeting a message to them in their own anthropological language can work wonders.”6
More formally, messages that appeal to mental “frames”—the cognitive structures that people use to understand and interpret reality8—home in on people’s values, assumptions, and aspirations to better connect and resonate with a target audience. This kind of message framing encourages people to act on their deepest heartfelt ideals and beliefs by appealing to emotions, rather than just logic. Nike’s famous Just Do It campaign dares young athletes to pursue their passions without excuse—by purchasing Nike shoes, of course.
Green marketing research indicates that framing green product advertising along consumers’ self-interests and values, rather than on broad messages of “save the planet,” can expand mainstream appeal.9 For example, framing toxic-free carpet cleaner as “safe for crawling babies” provides a compelling emotional appeal to parents regardless of the product’s environmental benefit.
Building a Macho Frame
Message framing and strong narratives can help develop a more masculine image for sustainability by tapping into the deep and motivational macho values of target audiences. While the Don’t Mess with Texas slogan called men to protect the honor of Texas, macho-ness may be manifested by other values such as:
- Strength: emotional toughness, courage, self-reliance, aggression, and rationality;
- Honor: duty, loyalty, responsibility, integrity, selflessness, and compassion;
- Agency or action: competitiveness, ambition, dominance, and risk-taking.10
Some green marketers are already leveraging these macho values effectively in their advertising and product design. Tesla Motors, for example, has framed its sleekly designed plug-in electric vehicles with adrenalin-rushing speed capabilities and heart-pumping ads to appeal to the macho competitiveness and risk-taking of affluent male drivers. Likewise, Patagonia’s advertising has aligned its environmentally responsible clothing and gear with outdoor enthusiasts’ aspirations of self-reliance, ambition, and respect for nature.
Narrative connects issues with values.11 It can bring abstract ideas to life. Compelling stories told again and again, or with variation, can educate and persuade audiences about their relationship to issues and why they should care.
One popular Don’t Mess with Texas commercial in 1986, for example, showed Dallas Cowboy football stars Randy White and Ed “Too Tall” Jones trash talking as they picked up litter along the road.12
Announcer: “What are a couple of football stars doing alongside the road?”
White: “Picking up after some folks who really don’t care much about Texas.”
Jones: “You see the guy who threw this out the window? You let him know I got a message for him!”
White: “I got a message for him, too (crushing a soda can with his bare hand)… I kinda need to see him to deliver it!”
Jones: “Don’t mess with Texas.”
The commercial conveyed all the elements of a good macho narrative—conflict between villains (litterers disrespecting Texas) and admired brawny heroes (football stars picking up trash) with a clear moral: dispose of your trash responsibly. White and Jones exhibited the masculine values of duty, responsibility, and honor with a clear aggressive warning—mess with Texas, and they’d mess with you.
A Green Marlboro Man?
OgilvyEarth’s study concluded that sustainability needs its own Marlboro Man—the iconic cowboy who changed the image of the once “mild as May” filtered women’s Marlboro Cigarette in the 1950s.13 Within months of his introduction, the attractive but menacingly emotionless roughneck working in the rugged outdoors transformed Marlboro into the macho cigarette brand.
Turbine cowboys. Wind power could draw on a parallel all-American, self-reliant cowboy figure, given that wind projects are typically sited on cattle ranges in the rural heartland. Interestingly, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, who often sports a Stetson hat, has become one of America’s leading wind energy advocates. His Pickens Plan promotes domestic wind and natural gas development as economically rational and good for America, and his “army” of Pickens Plan followers has become a significant grassroots movement.14,15
In a related bit of irony, the big oil-and-gas state of Texas leads the country in wind energy development, and many rural Texas communities proudly promote their wind farms. Billboards by the Economic Development Corporation of Pampa, Texas, tout, “Where the wheat grows, the oil flows, and the wind blows,” and portray wind turbines alongside Texan landscape fixtures like livestock, crops, and oil derricks.
The Weather Channel’s new reality TV series Turbine Cowboys capitalizes on the perceived riskiness of wind farm construction,16 following the path of other popular “macho job” cable programming like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch. These programs aim at professional male viewers longing for the blue-collar perils and physical excitement of jobs that subdue nature.17 Many other green jobs have a similar masculine appeal—from construction workers retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency to drilling rig operators boring steam wells for geothermal power.
Narratives celebrating the skill, courage, and resourcefulness of macho American cowboys and workers striving to win energy independence and freedom from despotic oil-rich nations could broaden the acceptance of renewable energy and green jobs.
Army green. Probably the most macho of professions pursuing green is the military. Oil has long been the lifeblood of the U.S. military to move men, machines, and munitions. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, have exposed the security risks of such oil dependence. War-zone oil transports have become easy targets, with over 3,000 American soldiers and contractors killed in military fuel convoys between 2003 and 2007.18
Consequently, the Pentagon has launched alternative energy and efficiency measures to reduce the military’s oil dependence. A Marines combat unit in Afghanistan, for example, has been outfitted with portable solar panels to recharge electronics, eliminating the need for electric generator fuel. The Army is developing hybrid trucks, and the Air Force has been flying planes on biofuels for years.
Retired military generals Wesley Clark and Colin Powell have become leading advocates of American renewable energy for the sake of national security and energy independence.
Commercial green products inspired by military uses, such as solar-clad camouflage tents, solar-powered backpacks, and roll-up solar mat chargers, could appeal to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. Green industries could do well by honoring returned military veterans with employment opportunities building a new, more energy-secure and independent America.
Mean, green driving machine. Probably, the most suspect of green initiatives today is the plug-in electric vehicle (EV). President Obama wants one million EVs on the road by 2015, but sales have so far been anemic and the public narrative has gone awry over “range anxiety,” the Chevrolet Volt’s crash test battery fires, and the Nissan Leaf’s wimpy golf cart looks.19 A bizarre TV ad showing a thankful polar bear hugging a Leaf owner has many viewers scratching their heads.20 The Leaf may be good for polar bears because of low emissions, but what’s in it for drivers?
Cars are sold to reflect aspirations and personalities. To appeal to the macho heart, EVs must match beloved, traditional, gasoline-powered cars in style, performance, and name. Compared to the masculine competitiveness of the Charger or Patriot, or the sex appeal of the Viper or Mustang, names like Volt and Leaf simply don’t cut it.
While EVs can’t rev and roar beyond the whisper of a refrigerator, marketers should focus on their macho realities. The constant torque of EVs provides for a potential acceleration punch that can best high-performance gasoline-powered cars. Motor Trend confirmed that the Tesla Roadster Sport can race from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.7 seconds.21 Ads showing EVs tethered to electrical plug outlets should be abandoned in favor of ads depicting aerodynamic EVs speeding past high-priced gasoline signs on the open road—an appeal to the macho values of self-determination and freedom from oil.
Don’t Mess with Macho Dads
As the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign illustrates, savvy message framing and marketing can encourage green actions among men who are otherwise indifferent to most environmental concerns. Many sustainability issues have ready-built macho narratives that could bridge sustainability’s gender gap if promoted effectively—think the ruggedness of Patagonia, the power of Tesla.
Perhaps the most macho of responsibilities for men is that of being a father. Marketing research indicates that men often worry about having what it takes to be a good dad, and most men wish they could spend more quality time with their kids.22 Marketers can engage these aspirations by framing sustainable behaviors and using green products as opportunities for fathers to be role models and providers for their children.
One path forward may be narratives portraying dads spending quality time with their children recycling cans, bike riding to the park, protecting wildlife on camping trips, improving home efficiency by installing LEDs and caulking windows, visiting solar farms, and remembering to bring the reusable shopping bag to the supermarket—even if the bag resembles a man-purse. Aligning sustainability issues with being a good dad can help men become green mentors for the next generation. Drawing on a father’s love and sense of duty, responsibility, and integrity can make green more macho.