Corporate Use of Environmental Marketplace Advocacy: A Case Study of GE's 'Ecomagination' Campaign

By Kristi Lee Jacobsen
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2012, Vol. 3 No. 2 | pg. 1/3 |

Abstract

This study explored the concept of marketplace advocacy within the context of General Electric's "Ecomagination" environmental campaign. The study looked at what makes marketplace advocacy campaigns successful, how these campaigns are used to conceal environmental issues, and what concerns the public has with the corporations that implement these campaigns. The results indicated that marketplace advocacy is a powerful strategic communications tool that can be used by corporations to successfully alter public opinion and impact policy surrounding environmental concerns and issues.

I. Introduction

The field of communications continually evolves to include profoundly influential campaigns. "Marketplace advocacy" is one specific tool being used by corporations worldwide. This powerful strategic communications tool, a form of issue advocacy, is used by corporations to promote a product, service or industry function while influencing policy and public opinion (Miller, 2012). These campaigns are profoundly integrated into a corporation's core and require support from all stakeholders. Due to the strategic value of these campaigns, they are often used to address environmental concerns.

Scholars have determined that corporations' motivations behind these campaigns are primarily driven by extrinsic goals, such as political favor, financial gain and risk management (Basu & Palazzo, 2008). This has stirred debate over the ethicality of marketplace advocacy campaigns. Environmentally based campaigns serve as one example of deliberated campaigns. For example, General Electric's "Ecomagination" campaign works to influence a broad range of stakeholders to support its efforts in creating clean technology to solve environmental problems (GE, 2012). There is concern, however, about whether or not General Electric is being honest with the public through the outreach tactics being used (Kranhold, 2007).

This example served as the inspiration for this study—to explore how a successful marketplace advocacy campaign is implemented and to identify the factors that influence how and why a corporation uses marketplace advocacy to conceal environmental concerns. Specifically, this study sought to address the following research questions:

  • RQ1: What techniques contribute to the success of a marketplace advocacy campaign?
  • RQ2: What concerns does the public have with corporations' use of marketplace advocacy campaigns?
  • RQ3: How are marketplace advocacy campaigns being misused to conceal environmental issues?

Understanding how marketplace advocacy is used, the issues surrounding this strategy, and its ability to conceal environmental issues will establish the first step towards future research to fully comprehend this communications tool as it develops and begins to be used widely by corporations around the world.

II. Literature Review

The author reviewed scholarly articles on marketplace advocacy campaigns, qualities of successful marketplace advocacy campaigns, public concerns surrounding marketplace advocacy campaigns, and the use of marketplace advocacy campaigns to conceal environmental issues.

Understanding Marketplace Advocacy Campaigns

To fully comprehend marketplace advocacy, it is important to first understand issue advocacy. Issue advocacy campaigns are used by corporations to reduce the potential for government intervention resulting from public calls for investigation. These campaigns aim to inform, educate, and persuade the public about the positive contributions the corporation is bringing to society and the economy (Miller, 2012). The functions of an issues advocacy campaign include integrating public policy issues into corporate strategic planning, perceiving stakeholders' opinions that may influence operations, prioritizing issues of greatest operational, financial and political significance, creating strategic response plans, communicating on issues to change opinion and mitigate regulations, and evaluating the impact of the campaign to make changes to the management core (Nelson & Heath, 1986).

Marketplace advocacy is a type of issue advocacy that seeks to protect a company's market by specifically influencing public policy. This form of advocacy represents a significant portion of issue advocacy campaigns. It allows companies to promote their business while addressing any public concerns associated with the product, service or manufacturing processes used. Research has shown that marketplace advocacy may effectively influence public policy because of its ability to persuade without seeming to do so (Miller, 2012).

This method of communications can be used by any organization, but is often used by organizations promoting risk-related products such as tobacco, gas, oil, coal and pharmaceuticals. Marketplace advocacy appeals to common values and beliefs and can be used to distract attention from serious concerns about possible issues, while gaining public support for an organization (Miller, 2012). Its target audiences can range from the general public to narrowly defined audiences. Targeting smaller groups allows corporations to develop messages that specifically address opinions and attitudinal predispositions of the audience (Davis, 1995). Perhaps the most important audience group is composed of individuals who live where a business is located. Community stakeholders, those who live within geographic proximity to the business, are of importance because of the potential support they offer to corporations after gaining economic and psychological benefits such as employment, community pride and a sense of heritage (Miller, 2012). Other stakeholders include shareholders, employees, customers, investors, suppliers, competitors, the media, and government organizations (Haroon & Nisar, 2010).

When targeting the general public, marketplace advocacy tactics are seen frequently on public media outlets. Advertisements appear during morning and prime-time television, in national newspapers, in popular magazines, on billboards, and in public transportation facilities such as airports and train stations. Other strategies include media relations, sponsorships, the use of opinion leaders and hosting events (Miller, 2010).

The Qualities of a Successful Marketplace Advocacy Campaign

Once the target audience is decided and a campaign is implemented, various evaluation procedures may be used to evaluate the success of the campaign. Research shows, however, that many corporations have made minimal efforts to fully understand the impact of these campaigns. Instead of following a pretest and posttest model, many corporations that have used marketplace advocacy evaluate only through post interviews and response rate monitoring (Miller, 2010). Corporations also monitor media coverage, public opinion polls, and outcomes in political decisions and elections.

The success of a marketplace advocacy campaign can be defined as the advancing of an organization's position on an issue. In other words, success is the altering of the public's opinion on an issue that may have brought about a public call for government intervention (Miller, 2012). One way of assessing this is to examine the media's portrayal of the campaign and corporation. In some cases, the media may negatively react to a campaign by producing stories that are skeptical or adverse. A successful media portrayal, however, would show positive stories written about the campaign and a shift in media coverage from criticism to praise and support.

Another method to measure success is performing post research. Surveys can be taken of target audiences to see how their attitudes toward the marketplace advocacy sponsor have changed since the campaign implementation began. Studies like these have shown that marketplace advocacy campaigns have the ability to influence the public's opinion regarding industry-related issues and increase acceptance and approval of the organization (Miller, 2012).

The main goal of marketplace advocacy campaigns is to avoid government intervention. Therefore, the success of a campaign can be observed through the corporation's ability to operate under no government intrusion, while also gaining support from political parties to continue their current operations without restrictions. Continued support and positive political positions all give encouragement for the necessity of marketplace advocacy campaigns.

Lastly, marketplace advocacy is successful if it has affected the corporation's organizational environment and adjusted its strategic plans. Due to its links to management and public relations, marketplace advocacy is an internal as well as an external form of communications. Managers of marketplace advocacy campaigns must train employees to understand their impact on public perception of the organization. A campaign is successful if it has become a vital part of the corporation's planning, operating and communicating activities and all employees understand and help support the agenda the campaign is aiming to set (Nelson & Heath, 1985).

Public Concerns Surrounding Marketplace Advocacy Campaigns

A campaign that is able to penetrate deeply into a corporation's working model while influencing public policy is likely to have risks of disputes and concerns. These problems may be seen among the organization's employees or from the target audience of the campaign. A unique function of marketplace advocacy campaigns is that there is no requirement for a corporation to visibly state what issue or concern they are trying to change the public's opinion on. In some cases, the issue may be obvious, but in other cases, the campaign may be able to alter the public's perception without them realizing. In most circumstances, however, the corporation is reluctant to openly admit that it is managing an issue or seeking to change public's perception for its own benefit (Nelson & Heath, 1985).

Tactics used in marketplace advocacy campaigns can individually cause dispute. An example of this is the use of advocacy advertising. Controversy surrounds corporations' use of advocacy advertising because of legal and regulatory freedoms. Since the advertisements are not specifically selling a product, but instead trying to persuade public opinion, there is debate on whether to classify these advertisements as commercial or political speech (Cutler & Muehling, 1989). Commercial speech would allow for government control to ensure that viewpoints are presented in an honest, accurate and balanced manner. Political speech protects corporations under the First Amendment and does not allow government regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission, to substantiate any claims made. Currently, the classification of commercial or political speech pertaining to marketplace advocacy is not clear.

An additional problem associated with marketplace advocacy tactics is the public's general controversial view of marketing. While some companies employ ethical and truthful marketing strategies, others have been accused of being misleading and even causing societal problems (Jahdi & Acikdilli, 2009). Studies have found that campaigns, similar to those of marketplace advocacy, that aim to increase positive public perception of an organization are not always driven by intrinsic and ethical motives, but are instead driven by extrinsic motives including political pressures, opportunity for financial gain and risk management (Basu & Palazzo, 2008). This triggers an issue because the public has no way of knowing what motives the campaign stems from.

Commonly, stakeholders desire to know more about corporations in order to make decisions on what businesses to financially support. Corporations are fully aware of this and seek to expand their marketing efforts to include positive aspects of their company that will boost their reputation and encourage the public's investments. Through positive advocacy campaigns, corporations seek to fulfill the consumer's desire to learn more about the company while also gaining a competitive edge, avoiding penalties for unethical behavior, preventing negative impact of future legislation and ensuring long-term investment in their brand image. In order to avoid suspicion, corporations use powerful and effective communication tools to implement their marketplace advocacy campaigns, including public relations and sponsorships (Jahdi & Acikdilli, 2009).

The issue predominant among marketplace advocacy campaigns is that of transparency, with transparency being defined as a business operating in a way that is easy for consumers to see, understand and openly criticize its actions. Researchers often question transparency of marketplace advocacy campaigns because the audience does not know the campaign foundation. As stated earlier, sponsorships are often used to implement stronger marketplace advocacy campaigns. In these cases, corporations sponsor a campaign where the corporation's name and brand are omitted from all marketing materials or are hidden by misleading pseudonyms (Miller, 2010).

The challenge with marketplace advocacy campaigns is that they assume a central role in corporate strategy where the public is interested in learning more about the corporation. When marketplace advocacy campaigns are implemented, the public often questions their legitimacy (Nazari, Parvizi & Emami, 2012). For years, commentators and researchers have challenged corporations to communicate issues and campaigns in a more responsible and meaningful manner (Nelson & Heath, 1985).

The Use of Marketplace Advocacy Campaigns to Conceal Environmental Issues

Marketplace advocacy campaigns are often used to change the public's perception of risk-related industries. These campaigns can, however, greatly mislead the public through their lack of transparency. This is commonly seen when corporations attempt to conceal environmental issues through marketplace advocacy campaigns.

Energy and environmental issues are often targets of marketplace advocacy campaigns because of the ability to influence social opinions and political outcomes. At a community level, environmental issues may include industrial health hazards, noise, odors and hazardous discharges to land, water and air. At a general public level, environmental issues commonly revolve around energy production and the use of potentially harmful fossil fuels over renewable energy sources (Miller, 2010). It is interesting to point out that research indicates that corporations' shareholders are perceived as the least interested group in environmental communications (Collison, Lorraine & Power, 2003).

Environmental marketplace advocacy campaigns tend to strategically praise societal beliefs and values and associate these with environmental issues in a confusing and conflicting way with pro-environmental goals (Miller, 2010). Framing an environmental issue in this seemingly manipulative way influences audience behavior to support the corporation's attended policy goals (Davis 1995). The use of marketplace advocacy campaigns to conceal possible environmental issues and concerns is a valuable tool for risk-related industries. The campaigns allow corporations to defend their images and reputations while influencing political decisions and broad public opinion.

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