Consumers don't respond well to responsible advertising.
Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

'Good' advertising gone wrong

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Ads that promote corporate social responsibility by encouraging consumers to use less of a company's core product could very well be having the opposite effect.

A study conducted in part by University of Calgary associate professor and consumer behaviour researcher Dr. Katherine White looked at an emerging trend among companies.

"We noticed that some companies were promoting using less of their own products and framing it as a socially responsible message," she said. "We were kind of curious about how people react to that."

It turns out that while the goal of such ads, campaigns and promotional initiatives was to create a more positive image for a company, the research indicated that consumers were actually more likely to evaluate that same company in a negative light if the marketing scheme seemed incongruent with the company's goals.

"The danger when you're promoting decreased usage of your own product, [is that] it could very well have this backfire effect," said White.

She added that the more separation between the ad's responsible message and the corporations want for clients, the more negative the reaction.

Among the companies listed in the research as using this tactic of trying to project a socially responsible corporate image is Alberta-based energy company Enmax.

In one of their latest commercials, a man finds a trespassing Dr. David Suzuki in his basement, about to get rid of a rarely utilized fridge because it consumes the equivalent of $150 of electricity annually.

Equating the dollar amount to its beer equivalent, the man then proceeds to go on an energy saving spree by unplugging all unnecessary electrical appliances.

"In Enmax's case, they're selling energy," said White. "In some ways they're telling us to use less of their own product. They're telling us to unplug the extra fridge in your basement and to put in energy efficient lightbulbs, which is very nice, but the catch is it tells us to decrease usage of a product that they actually make money on."

White added that a positive evaluation can also be a possibility, provided that a company presents the message of using less of their product in a manner consistent with the overall corporate image that they project, something Enmax corporate communications manager Natika Sunstrum made sure to highlight.

"[At] Enmax, we feel that we have an obligation to promote the wise use of electricity, much like we would promote safe use of electricity," she said. "Beyond advertising, we're passionate about energy conservation."

The research, however, did not delve into the subsequent actions of the consumers who responded unfavourably to corporate social responsibility initiatives.

"That would be an interesting follow up to see what do they do," said White.