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Want to turn on — or avoid turning off — someone based on their political leanings? Going ‘green’ may psych liberals and progressives…while blowing-off conservatives.

In America — a land of subliminal ad messages, jingles, and subtle product placement pitches — you’d think labels and signs would lead more people to save energy. But as Ira Gershwin taught us so memorably in Porgy & Bess, “it ain’t necessarily so.”

A widely recognized study on people and energy saving seems to bear out the value of signs. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues in 2007 found that more hotel guests re-hung their used towels — saving hot water and laundry energy — if they see signs saying just the right thing, which in this case was that previous guests in those rooms had re-hung their towels.

But as Cialdini learned from various sign experiments, it all depends on just how the sign asks people to save energy. In something of a twist on what some might think seems obvious about peer pressure, other research suggests that “green” labels can actually repel people who don’t want to be associated with the messages.

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Univ. of Pennsylvania researcher Dena Gromet

In two studies by University of Pennsylvania researcher Dena Gromet and colleagues, for instance, labeling products as energy-saving tended to work against the goal of saving energy. People who consider themselves to be politically conservative, and who reject the idea that wealthy countries ought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, were turned off by “green” labels on lightbulbs and hybrid cars. Fewer of them would buy the products if they were labeled green, just because they did not want to be associated with “liberal” causes and politics.

The studies show that labels matter — and companies should think hard about what they’re putting on a product if they want it to become a universal choice, says Gromet, 31, who earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Princeton in 2009.

“It may not be that there is a one-size-fits-all approach, especially using that environmental type messaging,” Gromet recently told The Yale Forum. “Our evidence indicates that you are going to dissuade a significant group of people from buying these types of products, because they don’t want to be associated with these values.”

Want Your Car to Say ‘Save the Earth?’

Gromet and her colleagues recuited 609 people online, asking them to take part in a hypothetical car-buying game. They showed a picture of a hybrid car, some with a permanent emblem that said “Save the Earth,” and others sporting a “No Foreign Oil” label. Test-takers were told the emblems could not be removed: they would remain on the car as long as the person owned it.

The emblems were sometimes placed over the back bumpers. Other times they were affixed to the inside of the glove compartment, where nobody could see them without opening it.

The study is still in review — results are being compiled, and the peer review process is still going on, so the percentages are still rough. But they’re revealing of people’s differing attitudes about their politics. About 80 to 90 percent of participants who said they see themselves as politically liberal chose the hybrid car with the super-green “Save the Earth” emblem. But only 50 to 60 percent of those who said they are conservative would want the cars with those labels.

Cars whose emblems said “No Foreign Oil” attracted 70 to 75 percent of the liberals and 70 percent of the conservatives. Conservatives didn’t go for labeling as often as liberals, and they really didn’t go for the “green” emblems.

But the oddest thing, perhaps, is this: it didn’t matter whether the emblems were placed outside over the bumper, where everyone could see them, or whether they were hidden inside the glove compartments. If someone disliked the emblem, they just disliked it, period. No one else had to see it. It was bad enough to drive around knowing it was next to the owner’s manual.

More important than the fact that environmental slogans on products can backfire is this: people of left and right political bents seem to agree more on economic problems of resources. It’s over slogans on ethical quandaries about wasteful societies that they seem so different in their beliefs. When the emblem brought up the question of foreign oil, Gromet says, “the polarization was no longer there.”

CFLs vs. Incandescents: Lightbulb study

Similar differences in approach based on political leanings showed up in an earlier study published this past April. Gromet and her colleagues Howard Kunreuther and Richard P. Larrick found a similar pattern of attitudes about lightbulbs.

The researchers gave each participant $2 and sent them to a store. They could buy either standard incandescent bulbs or compact fluorescents and keep the money they didn’t spend. The guinea pigs were told ahead of time that the CFL would last longer and use much less electricity over the long-term. When they got to the store, half of the shoppers were shown CFLs labeled with stickers that said, “Protect the Environment.” The other half saw bulbs with no labels.

Gromet and her research colleagues also manipulated the costs for different people to see what they would do. In the study, some participants were shown CFLs that cost more than the incandescents, which is how it is in real life, or those that cost only 50 cents each, the same price as the incandescents.

When both type of bulbs cost the same, all but one of the study participants bought the CFL. When the CFL cost more, even though in the long run it would save money and electricity, “we saw a different pattern,” Gromet said, depending on how the bulb was labeled.

Again, it’s the old sign and slogan question. When the CFLs had no label, liberals and conservatives chose CFLs at the same rate of about 60 percent.

But when the CFL bulbs were wrapped in packaging that said, “Protect the Environment,” liberals bought them at the same 60-percent rate, but only 30 percent of those who called themselves moderates and conservatives bought them.

One conclusion: “Green” labels repelled the non-liberals — but only when they had to spend more money up front.

The Public’s Buying Approaches: A Continuing Enigma

It’s tempting to think that grown Americans still behave a little as if they’re on a playground, identifying with messages they think are “cool” and rejecting those they dislike.

The stronger message here — even stronger than Americans’ often unreasonable approach to money and energy — is that labels can be counterproductive. People, as customers, may well unite in responding to the problems associated with energy if the reasons aren’t couched in classic environmental dogma.

“Looking at energy independence, there are other aspects — especially when it comes to energy — that may be more uniting” than the controversial arguments about carbon dioxide, Gromet says. “The audience you are appealing to is going to be important. In the United States, where the environmental issues have become so politicized, it actually can have negative consequences.”

Christine Woodside is a writer and editor based in Deep River, Connecticut. She started her career in 1981 in Philadelphia, first as a news clerk at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then as associate editor...