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Visual Persuasion and Communicator Credibility in WWF Environmental Advertising
Ellie Flanagan
[email protected]
James Madison University
School of Communication Studies
With all of the advertisements constantly interrupting our daily routine of enjoying our
choice of media outlets, it is difficult to identify how exactly these advertisements attempt to
persuade us. People are lead to question what advertisements are factual, what ads provide false
information, and who is a trustworthy source. These persuasive advertisements often cause
people to question what is important, what values they should hold, and what decisions will
ensure a better future. Studying persuasion is important when analyzing advertisements because
it is ever changing and subtle, subliminal messages are often included. The World Wildlife Fund
(WWF) is a perfect example of an organization using unique and effective advertising strategies
to get their message across, a message that is extremely important but often ignored. WWF’s
vision is to build a future in which people live in harmony with nature, and in doing so places
great emphasis on advertising techniques that generate fear and sympathy and create a sense of
identity for the readers of their ad campaigns. WWF is particularly effective not only due to their
non-traditional tactics, but also because of their status as a credible source of information. The
WWF takes advantage of their communicator credibility and applies a values-based approach
including series of visual persuasion techniques including photography and art to create the
aesthetically pleasing, eye-catching advertisements that frequent all sources of mass media
The WWF is the world’s leading conservation organization whose mission is to conserve
nature and reduce the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth. The organization
works in 100 countries and is supported by 1.2 million members in the United States and close to
5 million globally ( Their self-proclaimed duties include protecting species,
conserving places, transforming businesses, tackling climate change, working with communities,
and developing science-based solutions. Their advertisements have been featured on several
“best,” “most unique” or “most inspirational” advertisements lists from respectable journals and
One of the most notable strategies used by the WWF in their advertisements is the use of
photography as persuasion. Their advertisements often use pictures to evoke a feeling of disgust
because as Nabi (1998) states in his study of the effect of disgust-eliciting visuals on animal
experimentation, “disgust as opposed to other strong emotions creates a turning away.” In
addition to stopping a negative behavior, Nabi goes on to suggest in his research that disgust may
further adaptation by promoting physical health by preventing the consumption of spoiled food
or toxic water and encouraging the maintenance of a sanitary environment. An example of this
use of disgust through photography to persuade is a WWF advertisement featuring a nice dinner
table set with a baby being served as the main course. The baby is surrounded by food and even
has an apple in its mouth, conveying the image of a roasted pig about to be eaten. The caption on
the ad says, “Consuming the Earth is consuming our future.” This particular advertisement will
leave a sick feeling in the stomach of most of its viewers. It is somewhat horrifying to imagine
what the picture suggests, but that was exactly the motive of the WWF when they created it.
They wanted the viewers of the advertisement to be forced to imagine an unthinkable situation
and compare it to the very real situation that is the deterioration of the environment.
In addition to the use of disgusting images as a means of persuasion, the WWF also
frequently uses fear appeals to scare their viewers into making a change. The fear appeals used
by the WWF successfully cause their viewers to consciously consider making a change for their
own personal future, not just the future of the environment. Photographic print advertisements
using fear appeals usually contain one main strategy, catching the eye of the viewer. Adler
(2002) states in his article about environmental marketing messages, “Environmental groups are
learning a basic tenet of marketing – before you can get the people to change, you have to get
their attention.” The purpose of fear appeals in environmental awareness advertisement
campaigns, particularly those used by the WWF, is to paint the problem as a relevant fear to
everyone. A WWF advertisement featuring an enormous beer can crushing New York City is an
example of how these ads aim to remind people that it is their world they are ruining when they
More importantly, these advertisements suggest to their viewers that they can indeed act
upon this threat. One of the most blunt WWF advertisements that illustrates this idea features a
close-up picture of a monkey pulled up on a computer screen with a hopeful look on its face and
a pop-up giving the “viewer” the option “save” or “don’t save.” The WWF probably could not
have come up with a simpler way of suggesting that the ability to preserve the environment and
animal species rests solely in our hands. A series of advertisements from the WWF featuring the
simple phrase, “You can help,” alongside pictures of destroyed and desolate territories with
sickly and depressed animals clinging to life and looking straight into the camera. One such
advertisement features a deserted, dimly lit park and a seal wrapped up in newspapers lying on a
park bench. This advertisement not only evokes a sense of fear, but also offers a feeling of hope
and motivation by implying that the power is in the hands of the people. Adler (2002) states in
his article that “Environmental health advocates assert that ads should include strong
recommendations for what readers can or should do – a call to action.” Although the WWF
advertisements do not always give specific remedies for massive issues such as pollution and
climate change, their imagery and simple to-the-point messages express most of what is to be
done to generate sustainable change. When the EPA came out with a report that found 90% of
the general public’s exposure to dioxin comes through food, particularly meat and dairy
products, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ) created an advertisement in June
2002 attempting to make a statement about the issue. CHEJ’s ad featured a picture of bacon and
eggs with the caption “What are you eating for breakfast?” and a small statistic about the amount
of dioxin present in meat and dairy. The advertisement proved to be a failure, and Adler (2002)
attributes this to the avoidance of answering the question, “what do you do about it?” WWF ads
specifically name the problem whether it is deforestation, global warming, or harmful pollutants
in everyday food and products. In addition to naming the problem and foreshadowing its effects
through photography, they offer a quick and easy action to take to combat the issues, which is
making a donation. The techniques of WWF are superior to those of CHEJ in this example
because while both organizations used photography to generate a sense of fear in their viewers,
those who viewed the CHEJ advertisement were left with a feeling of doom and helplessness,
and those who viewed the WWF advertisement became aware of the issue, and were given a
simple solution to help fix it.
The creation of a sense of identification with the issues illustrated and photographed in
advertisements is another effective technique often used by the WWF to persuade their viewers.
The production artists who work for WWF aim to make viewers identify with the threatening
problems, and they do this by making advertisements relevant to them and putting captions and
facts in terms they can understand. As Zoller (2011) states in his article about communicating
health issues, “scientific discourses create barriers for environmental health by deflecting
attempts to understand industrial sources of illness.” The WWF recognizes this need to steer
away from scientific jargon. They are an organization that is particularly good at placing focus
on the audience and designing the ads with that in mind. They not only make the issues easy to
understand, but they make their viewers think outside the box when analyzing the eye-catching
photography frequented in WWF advertisements. The WWF has recently launched the Strategies
for Change Project that aims to re-examine some of the assumptions that underlie current
environmental campaigning and focus on perfecting their advertising technique. The official
WWF website page on the project states, “There is a large body of evidence that the values
people hold and the goals people pursue are critically important in motivating ambitious change”
( One WWF photo advertisement illustrating this identity-creation technique is a
frightening picture of a man that has morphed halfway into a fish including the caption, “Stop
climate change before it changes you.” This powerful advertisement is all about identity and
attempts to remind viewers that they should identify with nature and the environment just as
much as they identify with themselves, suggesting they are one in the same.
Symbolic, visual persuasion is another strategy used by the WWF in the creation of their
print advertisements. Iconicity in the advertisements is often used to represent something bigger
than what they show. An example of this is the WWF advertisement that has no captions,
statistics or words. The advertisement is simply a picture of two adjacent forests in the shape of
lungs that are slowly dying out. This advertisement is especially powerful because it makes a
statement about both lung cancer and deforestation. Along with creating a sense of identify for
the viewers, it also gracefully symbolizes the deterioration of the Earth, all while making the
viewer think outside of the box, see the bigger picture, and apply their creativity. Another WWF
ad that uses the technique of iconicity is an ad that features a “deer” made out of trash that
symbolizes the disintegration of nature and animal species. This advertisement is highly
persuasive because people tend to have a soft spot for animals and do not like to see them in
pain. While simultaneously hinting at the simplicity of recycling, this advertisement is a good
symbolic representation of pollution, one of the main causes of global warming today.
Perhaps the most commonly used technique in environmental awareness advertising
campaigns today is the purposeful evoking of sympathy. WWF campaigns use images that evoke
sympathy, and make a topic that often seems too broad and distant for most people to care about
seem extremely relevant to them as well as life threatening. One specific advertisement that uses
this strategy is an ad featuring a dying elephant lying underneath a bridge with a cloud of smog
above it and amidst piles of trash. This particularly graphic and heart-wrenching image makes
global warming seem more serious than many people wish to believe, and puts a “face” on the
problem. The look on the elephant’s face is one of despair and desperation, and the drama of it is
meant to aggressively pull on the heartstrings of its viewers. The viewer of this advertisement is
made to feel that they are some kind of monster if they allow pollution to continue.
The last mentionable advertising strategy on behalf of the WWF is the active use of their
communicator credibility. Source credibility, or “ethos” can be defined by a number of
characteristics, but the ones that apply most to the WWF are expertise, trustworthiness, likability,
and goodwill. These characteristics can be largely attributed to the fact that the WWF is a nonprofit organization and the world’s leader in proactive conservation efforts. They are not making
any personal profit from their advertising, so they should be listened to, trusted, and taken
seriously. They garner support from several non-related organizations in all areas of business
from Ford automobiles to Kleenex. Support from businesses such as these is especially
influential because their missions have nothing to do with promoting environmental awareness.
This support further illustrates the likability and goodwill of the WWF, thus intensifying their
communicator credibility. The WWF is comprised of and supported by experts and scientists
from all areas of the field. The have links to the government, with their founder, president, and
CEO all residing in Washington D.C. Adler (2002) in his discussion of the failure of the CHEJ
dioxin advertisement blames the letdown on lack of communicator credibility, stating, “CHEJ
didn’t have Washington lobbyists to make a campaign like that work.” Another example of
advertising success due to source credibility is mentioned by Howarth (2012) in his study of
environmental journalism. Howarth talks about a scientist named Professor Puzstai who created
a documentary-style advertisement campaign series claiming GM potatoes to be an example of a
personally and environmentally destructive new food technology. Due to his success in previous
scientific investigations, this advertising campaign was successful. According to Howarth
(2012,) “newspapers hailed Puzstai as an ‘independent’ scientist, an expert-consumer whose own
research caused him to question government certainty claims about safe food, whose moral
doubts led him to question the GM food.” Like Puzstai, The WWF is deemed by their viewers as
credible in their advertising endeavors because of their highly respected team and knowledge
Organizations aimed at both promoting awareness and generating fundraising efforts
often use factual information to persuade and gain sympathy for the cause. In the past,
organizations including the WWF have attempted to increase the number of advertisements they
promote that include factual information. According to Adler (2002), this increase in that
specific type of ad was mostly due to “a sense of frustration in the environmental community that
the mainstream media has not paid enough attention to their issues.” Recently, there has been a
new need to have an effort to present the most recent health-related science and to draw
conclusions from it for journalists (Adler, 2002.) The WWF’s Strategies for Change project even
suggests new evidence-based tactics for advertising as part of their new plan. In an article about
the WWF’s launching of a new decade-long campaign to protect Canada’s marine life, the use of
factual information, particularly through science, is mentioned as a tactic on behalf of the WWF
that furthers their communicator credibility. The article states, “Using the best science available,
WWF will work with coastal communities, governments, and other conservation groups and
affected industries to identify which areas to protect” (Comeau, 2000.) When graphic,
sympathetic, fear evoking photographic advertisement techniques and communicator credibility
do not succeed, factual information prevails because it cannot be argued with. Howarth (2012)
states the following in his article discussing environmental journalism, “Information facilitates
participation, agency and power, and so holds the potential to mobilize consumers.” This quote is
particularly powerful because it demonstrates how the simple act of giving out factual
information can cause a great deal of public action aimed at generating change, whether it be in
an environmental context, a political context, or a social context. An example of a WWF
advertisement using factual information to persuade features a dramatic picture of an elephant
with a captain stating that every year, hundreds of thousands of wild animals are killed because
of pollution and illegal hunting for their skins. The caption, while still not using scientific jargon
or cramming too much information, then goes into detail about how the food chain will become
unhinged very quickly and chaos will erupt if an end is not put to poaching and pollution.
Advertisements such as these are very effective because they present the reader with facts that
are made relevant to them and that cannot be ignored or refuted.
Going along with the use of factual information in environmental awareness advertising
campaigns, it is important to discuss the use of statistics in these same advertisements. Statistics
have historically been a popular persuasion strategy in advertising, particularly when the
advertisements attempt to bring about awareness of some serious topic. Environmental
awareness advertisements are no exception to this rule. The WWF is one of many non-profit
environmental conservation organizations that use this tactic in their print advertisements to
shock the reader and present them with more, undeniable evidence that supports their claims and
mission. One such WWF advertisement features a colorful, vivid picture of a tiger that is being
scoped out through the lens of a poacher’s gun. The main caption simply states “Save the wild
animals,” but the blurb placed at the bottom of the picture provides the reader with a great deal
of factual, statistical information that helps make relevant to them the issue of animal extinction.
The blurb states, “Just a century ago, an estimated 100,000 tigers roamed the wild lands across
Asia. Today, fewer than 5,000 tigers remain in the wild, the result of habitat destruction and
illegal killing to satisfy a global market for tiger skins, fur, bones, and other body parts.” The
strategic placing of these two statistics in this ad is a perfect example of the use of statistical
information aimed at leaving the reader in a state of shock and awe, hopefully followed by some
relevant course of action.
Combined efforts on behalf of the WWF, its patrons, supporters, and experts have made
their advertising legacy one to be remembered, respected, and adapted upon for years to come.
The WWF’s highly credible status as a message communicator, along with its values-based
advertising approach that uses persuasion through attention-grabbing, photographic and visual
symbolism is an example of an organization who in a sense “has the whole package” and whose
mission is pure, but urgent.
Adler, T. (2002.) Environmental advantage: Marketing the messages. Environmental Health
Perspectives, A538-A585
Comeau, P. (2000.) WWF goes to the mat for canada’s oceans. Canadian Geographic, 120:4
Howarth, A. (2012.) Participatory politics: Environmental journalism and newspaper campaigns.
Journalism Studies, 210-225
Nabi, R.L. (1998.) The effect of disgust-eliciting visuals on attitudes toward animal
experimentation. Communication Quarterly, 472-484
Zoller, H.M. (2011.) Communicating health: Political risk narratives in an environmental health
campaign. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 20-43