How virtual influencers can be used to engage climate sceptics

Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Dr Maximilian H. E. E. Gerrath is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Leeds University Business School. His research focuses on branding, digital marketing and consumer psychology.

Maximilian Gerrath

In an era where climate change scepticism and distrust of experts present significant obstacles to environmental action, innovative solutions are needed. Our recent study, published in the Journal of Business Research, explores an unconventional approach - using virtual influencers (VIs) to promote pro-environmental behaviours and campaigns.

Social media influencers versus virtual influencers

Social media influencers (SMIs) are people who build an online presence on social media platforms, positioning themselves as experts on certain topics, and who have a large and dedicated following. They can assume the position of key opinion leaders who are relatable and accessible to other social media users, and have been found in some instances to influence behaviour.

However, as SMIs are real people, their behaviour can be unpredictable, and they may become involved in scandals or activities that undermine the messages they are trying to promote.

In the case of promoting environmental causes, “greenfluencers” (people promoting an environmentally-friendly lifestyle on social media), may be on the receiving end of a backlash and have their authenticity questioned if their actions don’t match their messaging. For example, influencer Laura Whitmore was criticized for promoting pro-environmental behaviour while being an ambassador for the fast-fashion brand Primark.

Consumer backlash against SMIs who are found to be “green hypocrites” can dissuade other SMIs from promoting pro-environmental campaigns. One possible solution to solve the backlash SMIs may elicit, and to remove the danger of unpredictable human behaviour, is for policymakers and environmental campaigners to use VIs.

VIs are fictional, computer-generated imagery (CGI)-based characters that share content on social media. A prominent example of a VI is Lil Miquela, who has more than three million followers on Instagram. Owing to her remarkable global impact on social media, she was named by Time magazine as one of the top 25 most influential people on the internet.

Creators can carefully craft and control a VI’s image and communication to minimize the likelihood of any reputational risks. These virtual personalities, free from real-life controversies, could hold the key to inspiring pro-environmental behaviour, especially among those who distrust traditional sources.

Trust and warmth

The discourse around issues such as climate change is often led by experts. The public’s trust in experts is important to a successful pro-environmental campaign. For members of the public who are sceptical of experts however, communicating climate change information and pro-environmental behaviour through experts might not be an effective strategy.

Previous research reveals that non-expert influencers who do not have relevant knowledge or expertise can shift people’s pro-environmental behaviours.

Furthermore, individuals who have low trust in experts can place value on general knowledge and common sense, which could result in them valuing the opinion of SMIs over experts as SMIs are viewed as relatable.

Trustworthiness of SMIs and VIs can be affected by the “warmth” of their messaging. Warmth here refers to the extent to which an individual or an organisation is perceived as friendly, trustworthy, sincere, helpful and moral.

A VI’s warmth may shape the audience’s reactions to pro-environmental campaigns, as people determine whether others are well-intentioned or not by their perceived warmth. Prior research on warmth in social judgements suggests that people evaluate high-warmth characters more favourably than their low-warmth counterparts. Even if low-warmth actors behave in a way that benefits others or society, they may be judged as having ulterior motives rather than good intentions.

As the scepticism about pro-environmental appeals and green advertising grows, people may ignore or push back against pro-environmental messages and campaigns if they perceive them to be manipulative.

Green influencers’ warmth, therefore, appears crucial as high warmth can be associated with trustworthiness and good intentions.

Our findings

We employed a multi-methods approach to investigate the effectiveness of VIs in promoting environmental causes.

Using semi-structured interviews, we explored respondents’ opinions about using both SMIs and VIs to promote these messages. The findings revealed that social media users are sceptical of traditional SMIs as sources of pro-environmental messaging. Participants expressed concerns about the authenticity of both the cause and the influencer, particularly when influencer behaviour contradicted environmental advocacy.

However, individuals could be more receptive to pro-environmental messages from VIs. Because VIs are artificial and controlled, they are less likely to cause controversy, making them more suitable candidates to promote environmental sustainability.

Moreover, through additional experiments, we investigated the communications strategies of VIs (low versus high message warmth) to cater to various audiences based on their levels of trust in experts. The findings revealed that the warmth of the message is crucial. Warm and engaging language used by VIs reduced the perceived social-psychological distance (how far an individual perceives themselves to be psychologically from others) between the audience and the influencer, leading to higher engagement with pro-environmental causes.

Moreover, the research showed that the effect of message warmth was particularly pronounced for individuals with low trust in experts. This suggests that VIs could be especially effective in engaging individuals who are sceptical of traditional authority figures—such as climate change experts.

These findings have important implications for environmental communication strategies. By harnessing VIs, policymakers and other stakeholders can reach audiences that may otherwise be difficult to engage. VIs can provide a novel and exciting platform for promoting environmental causes, driving positive change even among those who distrust traditional sources of information.

In conclusion, virtual influencers offer a promising avenue for promoting environmental sustainability and combating climate change. By employing VIs with warm and engaging messaging, policymakers can effectively engage with audiences who are sceptical of experts. This innovative approach has the potential to inspire pro-environmental behaviour and drive meaningful change in the fight against climate change.

Read the paper: “Virtual influencers and pro-environmental causes: The roles of message warmth and trust in experts", Journal of Business Research,  Maximilian Gerrath (Leeds University Business School), Hossein Olya, Zahra Shah, Huaiyu Li (Sheffield University Management School).

The study in this paper was funded by the White Rose Collaboration Fund. Visit the project webpage.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.