Does Your Advertising Really Motivate Consumers to Buy Your Ethical Products?

Written By Eliane Karsaklian, PH.D., Founder, Ubi & Orbi
Edited By Christina Dreher, Medill IMC Class Of 2016

Published on 10/21/2015


Ethical products are proliferating rapidly and consumers worldwide are getting more and more ethically aware and thus motivated to buy these kinds of products. Ethical products are defined as being respectful of nature (organic, environmentally friendly), animals (not tested on animals) and labor conditions (fair trade, not employing children and providing adult employees with acceptable working conditions). A few years ago, ethical products were perceived as being rare and expensive and thus addressed niche targets. Today, there is a large range of ethical products across product categories that are available as well as affordable to every consumer.

Communication campaigns based on ethical values address new motivations among consumers in their decisions to purchase. Identifying consumers’ motivations to buy ethical products should be seen as multifaceted, not solely based on altruism — that it makes buyers feel that they are “doing good.” For instance, consumers might buy organic products because they are healthier (hedonic motivation) or buy fair trade products because it is trendy (conformity motivation).

Through my prior research, my colleague and I have introduced a framework of universal motivations for ethical consumption1 that aims to encapsulate the different themes identified in the literature, which would be generalizable across product category or country. The first of these dimensions is the extent to which the motivation is externally directed towards others (social) or internally-directed, independent of what other people think (non-social). Social influence stems from a person’s perception of how relevant others will perceive their behavior. At the social end of the continuum, decisions are influenced by group norms. The second dimension is the extent to which the motivation is oriented towards the self and one’s individual benefits (individualistic) or towards others and the collective good (collectivist). People with individualistic motivations are most concerned with their own welfare, instead of the group welfare.

In contrast, collectivist motives stimulate individuals to associate their behavior with and direct their behavior towards a group (as shown in Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

It seems that collectively these four categories capture the breadth of ethical consumption motivations. Moreover, we suggest that rather than being motivated by a single factor, people’s motivations for consuming ethical products are shaped by a combination of these factors, although for each ethical consumption decision one of the four motivational forces is likely to take precedence.

More recently, a study analyzing advertisements for ethical products aimed to identify the types of consumer motivations that advertisers appeared to direct their main message toward. The study “From green to ethical consumers: What should you change in your advertising to motivate them to buy ethical products?”2 looked at 23 advertisements for different product categories. The only criterion for inclusion was that products being advertised come from the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) industry and thus would be accessible to all consumers, regardless of socioeconomic status or nationality. Advertisements were taken randomly from organizations’ websites. Data analysis involved the researchers reviewing the visual and verbal cues contained in the advertisements using the following coding template:

  1. Self-actualization: Information in the advertisement appeals to consumers’ desire to do good for others (e.g. planet, people, animals)
  2. Hedonic: Information in the advertisement appeals to consumers’ desire to do good for themselves (e.g. health, beauty)
  3. Conformity: Information in the advertisement appeals to consumers’ desire to do what is approved by their peers (e.g. “everyone is doing it” and “go with the flow”)
  4. Self-orientation: Information in the advertisement appeals to consumers’ desire to do something different or to differentiate themselves from the average consumer (e.g. “I want to be different” or “I don’t buy what everyone buys”)

Findings from the study demonstrated that self-actualization was the primary motivation, appearing as a prominent motivation in all but one of the advertisements we sampled. In 11 of these ads (46 percent), self-actualization was the sole identified motivational appeal. By way of example, a billboard advertisement for the Ford motor vehicle company contained the following message about protecting the planet: “The trees blocking this billboard are a problem we don’t want to solve.” Although the brand produces cars that pollute the environment, the company counters this by showing how respectful it is of trees. We infer the message to be that, by extension, buying a Ford car is supporting the planet, a message appealing to self-actualization motives. Similarly, an advertisement for The Body Shop focuses on a commitment to the planet and general well-being (self-actualization) rather than the benefits of their products, such as softer skin or hair due to natural and organic ingredients (hedonic).

Hedonic motivations were identified in 11 advertisements and were the sole motivation in just one advertisement. An example from this category is an advertisement for Green Mountain Coffee, which evoked enjoyment of drinking a high-quality fair trade coffee (self-actualization) as much as consumers enjoy great music (hedonic motivation). Just one advertisement contained conformity motivations while no advertisements analyzed in this research addressed self-orientation motivations. Interestingly, the combination of self-actualization and hedonic motivations made up almost half of all the advertisements we reviewed.

The findings demonstrate the existence of a gap between the type of motivation predominantly promoted in advertisements and the different reasons why consumers buy ethical products as reported by respondents. We hypothesize that advertisers may be “stuck in the past,” encouraging consumers to feel good by doing good (self-actualization). Our findings provide evidence that consumers’ motivations may have moved on from this and that advertisers could consider the benefits (and costs) of highlighting other benefits in their advertisements. Consumers buy ethical products for reasons outside of just wanting to do good for other people, animals and the planet: they want to support products that will do good for themselves (hedonic), that will help them either fit in with a group (conformity) or stand out from the crowd (self-orientation).

With increasing pressure on consumers to behave and consume ethically, producers and their advertising agencies are likely to be seeking efficient ways to attract the growing number of consumers interested in ethical products. Our studies suggest that advertisers could consider expanding the breadth of motivations to which their campaigns appeal. Focusing solely on self-actualization, while beneficial, may be constraining their ability to encourage more consumers to buy ethical. [END]


  1. Karsaklian, Eliane and Anthony Fee. “From Green to Ethical Consumers: What Really Motivates Consumers to Buy Ethical Products?” 1 July 2013.
  2. Karsaklian, Eliane and Anthony Fee. “From Green to Ethical Consumers: What Should you Change in Your Advertisement to Motivate Them to Buy Ethical Products?” 2014.


Eliane Karsaklian Eliane Karsaklian, Ph.D., has lived and worked in several countries for more than 20 years, and has extensive knowledge and experience in intercultural relationships and negotiation techniques. She has mastered five languages and spends half of her time researching and teaching international business and half consulting with companies in their international activities’ development. She lives in Paris, is professor at Université Sorbonne and is the founder of Ubi & Orbi, specializing in accompanying companies in their settlements worldwide.
Christina Dreher currently works at Accenture where she focuses on content marketing and thought leadership within market research. She previously worked as a consultant, staff writer, research associate, media analyst, editor and reporter. Christina received her undergraduate degree in journalism from Medill.

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