If residential solar photovoltaics (PV) were adopted more widely in the United States, they could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But consumers balk at high up-front costs, even if energy savings would later offset those costs. A group of researchers led by former Erb Research Fellow Kimberly Wolske set out to study how different framing strategies affect PV’s appeal.

To their surprise, Wolske et al. found that these framing strategies did not influence the appeal of solar much—but underlying consumer motivations and predispositions did. Their findings are published in “Accelerating Demand for Residential Solar Photovoltaics: Can Simple Framing Strategies Increase Consumer Interest?” in Global Environmental Change.

The researchers surveyed single-family homeowners in Arizona, California, New Jersey and New York—states with burgeoning solar markets. Participants viewed one of six mock ads for residential PV systems and then answered questions about their likelihood of responding to the ad and how appealing solar seemed.

The framing strategies used—grounded in behavioral economics and psychology—are gain/loss framing, temporal framing, varied savings amounts, and simple vs. detailed savings calculations. Through three studies, these frames aimed to assess:

  • whether ads describing the money lost by not going solar, rather than the financial gains of solar, were more persuasive
  • whether the gains or losses were more compelling when framed using different time scales (every month, every year, or over the panels’ 25-year lifetime)
  • whether reactions to the ads depended on the amount of savings claimed and the level of detail provided about how the savings were calculated

Gain, loss and timing frames

Gain frames included the statements: “Go Solar! You could be saving money on your bills” and “With solar, you could save ($67 each month for the next 25 years)/($804 each year for the next 25 years)/($20,100 over the next 25 years).” Loss frames included: “Don’t Have Solar? You could be losing money on your bills” and “Without solar, you could be wasting ($67 each month for the next 25 years)/($804 each year for the next 25 years)/($20,100 over the next 25 years….).”

In the first two parts, Wolske et al. predicted that loss frames would be more persuasive than gain frames, and that temporal framing would influence perceptions, but they did not find support for either hypothesis. “Rather, both studies suggest that responsiveness to solar advertising is driven predominantly by underlying consumer motivations and predispositions, namely having an innate sense of curiosity about novel products, believing that others would be supportive of going solar, and feeling morally obligated to act on climate change. The design of the ad, especially the way in which the financial benefits of PV are framed, appears to be inconsequential.”

Does greater detail on savings make the proposition more appealing?

The third study looked at whether providing more information on how the financial claims were calculated affects the ads’ appeal. “Indeed, many respondents in Studies 1 and 2 questioned the veracity of the ads’ financial claims, writing in open-ended comments that they needed more details about the costs of PV to be able to fully evaluate it,” the researchers noted. Because the savings touted might be ambiguous, the researchers hypothesized that ads offering a detailed breakdown of how savings are calculated would: a) make consumers less skeptical of the ad; b) lead to more positive attitudes about PV; and c) result in greater intentions to respond to the ad.”

Results were mixed. Respondents who viewed the detailed savings ad were slightly more skeptical than those who saw the simple savings claim, but “when claimed savings amounts were high, the detailed ad led to more positive attitudes about PV’s benefits than the simple ad.”

Potential implications

Overall, the researchers’ findings go against common wisdom that loss frames may help increase interest in low-carbon technologies, as well as other studies’ findings that gain/loss and temporal frames can be manipulated to promote certain behaviors that affect the environment. Such frames are appealing because they are easy to implement—they require only small changes to the wording of marketing materials. But Wolske et al. did not find the support that they expected to find for these strategies.

The researchers acknowledged that solar providers must decide whether to market broadly, by using a few common ads like the ones used in these studies, or to craft multiple messages for specific consumer segments—such as targeting innovative consumers with messaging about technological advances. “Our findings suggest that tailoring messages to targeted consumer segments may be more effective than attempts to market the financial benefits of PV to broad audiences,” the researchers wrote. More broadly, they noted, “The results also contribute to behavioral economics and psychology research by identifying contexts under which the gain/loss framing bias and the present/future framing bias may not apply.”