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Media messages and plastic avoidance

Media messages and plastic avoidance

It's not just about 'what' you tell in a story... it's 'how' you tell it too.

Environmental communicators may be unintentionally deterring plastic avoidance by emphasising undesirable social norms. In 2019, we ran an online experiment where people were shown short video clips from documentaries about plastic waste to see if the clips affected people’s perceptions about what behaviours were considered ‘normal’.

We found that short video clips could influence social norms perceptions differently depending on how the issue was presented and who delivered the message. The clips were also effective in ‘sensitising the market’ by promoting the benefits of avoidance, increasing policy support, and increasing willingness to communicate about the issue.

The Power of Media

Exposure to media content can positively influence perceptions about what behaviours are considered ‘normal’ – known as social norms. However, media content can also have the opposite effect if undesirable behaviours are presented as common and acceptable. 

Documentaries about plastic waste, for example, often seek to draw attention to the scale of the problem by presenting images of large piles of plastic waste. While shocking, such images also depict plastic waste (and plastic use) as normal. This is particularly important given the popularity of documentary clips about plastic pollution circulating on social media.

Experimenting with media messages

We tested the effects of such clips using an online experiment. We used short pre-existing video clips from documentaries about plastic waste which were already popular on social media. 

Two clips focused on the volume of plastic waste generation (and the undesirable portrayal of the ‘norm’ or what others do) and two focused on the impact of plastic waste on wildlife (and the benefits of avoidance). One of the volume-focused clips and one of the impact-focused clips also included explicit social reactions, where people in the video indicated disapproval of what was happening (potentially influencing perceptions about ‘injunctive norms’ – i.e. whether others approve or disapprove of using plastic. Participants completed an online survey in July 2019 which included one of the four experimental clips (or a fifth control clip about how plastic is made).

Those who saw the two volume-focused clips believed others avoided plastic less often than those who saw one of the impact-focused videos. Those who saw the videos with well-known media personalities (David Attenborough and Craig Reucassel) believed plastic use was less socially acceptable than those who saw a video that featured piles of plastic in a landfill. 

Participants who saw any of the experimental clips had higher ratings for the self and environmental benefits of avoidance and greater intentions to discuss plastic waste and engage with the video on social media compared to the control group. Those who saw one of the clips that included explicit social reactions were more supportive of banning single-use plastics compared to the control group. Finally, those who saw one of the impact-focused clips also intended to avoid single-use plastics more than the control group.

So what?

Every day, individuals are exposed to media campaigns and documentaries, encouraging them to think and act differently. While media messages can influence our perceptions and behaviours, such content might not always have the impacts that its original creators intended, and without robust testing, are likely to remain oblivious to these unanticipated, underwhelming, or unintended outcomes.

Authored by Dr Kim Borg.

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