Can Red and Blue Support Green Light Bulbs?

How many liberals and conservatives does it take to change a light bulb? According to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the answer depends on how you describe the bulb.

After identifying their political ideology, a set of 210 potential bulb buyers were armed with information on the benefits of compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). They were asked to choose between lower efficiency and higher efficiency options; efficient bulbs were either labeled with a “protect the environment” sticker or a blank sticker. When all bulbs were priced the same, nearly every participant selected the energy-efficient option, regardless of ideology. But when confronted with a higher upfront price tag with higher long-term savings, fewer conservatives were willing to pay the extra cash for bulbs marked environmentally friendly.

The study leaves cause communicators with a big question: Do we want to be right, or do we want to make sure that as many households as possible are adopting energy-efficient lighting? If the ultimate goal is ensuring that CFLs are ubiquitous, we need to stop worrying about whether we tell people they’re better for the environment. As the unending D.C. deadlock demonstrates, it’s nearly impossible to persuade people to adopt an opposite ideological point of view. Can’t we just tout the financial benefits of light bulbs and be done with it? The study shows that price-based messaging is strong enough to make a sale, no matter the political affiliation.

Perhaps the larger question is whether we are willing to push aside our ideal messaging for other issues, as well. Being “right” is rarely the compromise position. As communicators, we need to keep our eye on the goal — which is almost always about making change and never about being correct. If we focus on our ultimate change goals, the ideal messaging will follow — though it might be different than we’d like, depending on an individual’s political point of view. In the end, we all get what we want with way less time spent fighting about it.