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California's Dire Drought Message Wanes, Conservation Levels Drop

When California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated water cutbacks in 2015, many people responded by having the grass taken out of their lawns and replacing it with more drought-friendly landscaping.
Damian Dovarganes
When California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated water cutbacks in 2015, many people responded by having the grass taken out of their lawns and replacing it with more drought-friendly landscaping.

Remember the California drought? It was all over the news a year ago, when the state took the unprecedented step of mandating statewide water cutbacks. The Sierra Nevada snowpack was at its lowest recorded level. Rivers and reservoirs were getting shallower and shallower. Wells in rural towns were literally running dry.

That drought is still very much a thing.

More than 62 percent of California remains in severe to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. And without a wet winter the state could be facing a sixth-consecutive year of severe drought.

"Absolutely we're still in a drought," says Peter Gleick, a co-founder of the Pacific Institute, a water think tank. "We are way below normal. Our reservoirs are low. Our groundwater is still being grossly over-pumped."

Problem is: People aren't acting like it — at least not quite like they did. And that's raising questions about how the drought is being messaged.

A year ago, when Governor Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent water cutback, the message was dire and it was clear. Californians rose to the occasion. In August 2015, urban water consumption was cut by 27 percent statewide, compared to the same month in 2013.

Earlier this year, the state did away with those mandatory water cutbacks, citing an improvement in the state's water conditions. "Since the circumstances changed, we felt like we needed to change our approach," says Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state water board.

Water conservation numbers fell after that announcement and they continue to fall. This past August, Californians cut their water use 17.7 percent — a nearly 10 percentage point slide from the year previous.

"I think people have kind of gone into denial mode because they're not getting as dire a message anymore," says Los Angeles homeowner Kelly Krull.

Krull is one of the people who got the message last year. She tore out her water-thirsty lawn and landscaping to put in dirt paths and drought-tolerant gardens. Some of her neighbors did the same. This year, Krull says, "I'm not hearing much of a message at all."

The difficulty of messaging drought

Messaging for something like drought is difficult for a lot of reasons. And it becomes more difficult the longer the drought persists.

To explain, NPR reached out to two people who do messaging for a living: Tony Foleno, the senior vice president and head of strategic development at the Ad Council, and Nick Barham, the chief strategy officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day Los Angeles, an advertising agency that works with companies such as Apple and Gatorade.

Below are some excerpts from both interviews, edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

How do you keep people interested in something that's been going on for longer than five years? How do you keep something like drought sexy?

Tony Foleno, Ad Council: I don't know if drought will ever be sexy, but I think that it's one of the tougher issues. It's sort of intangible [for urban users]. If you can't water your lawn or there's some inconvenience, it becomes a little more tangible, but it's not something that you might think of that might immediately affect you and your family. The other part of it is, the sense of self-efficacy: are my actions — my day-to-day actions — really making a difference? There could be some doubt around that. There could be doubt that while I'm doing my part, other people aren't doing their part.

Nick Barham, TBWA\Chiat\Day LA: With any messaging — whether it's about drought, whether it's about war or whether it's about the next pair of sneakers — there's an inevitable wear-out if people feel like they've heard the same thing before, especially if they feel like [earlier] danger has been averted. That's a shared characteristic between [public service announcements] and advertising in general; a lot of time you're trying to make things that feel over-familiar, mundane, invisible, boring or repetitious interesting and fresh. And trying to get people to reconsider something that has become a familiar part of daily life. I do think that's a challenge. But talking about water conservation in California, I think we need to get out of a campaign mindset and a temporary action and think more about long-term change of behavior.

What do you think of California's current efforts to message the drought?

Barham: Overall, I think they've been pretty successful. They did a lot of things right, certainly at the height of the drought, before El Nino did or didn't happen. They were getting lots of supporting messages from different areas. It was in the news, so you saw headlines and pictures of lakes that were less full than they used to be, so it didn't feel like a distant issue. There were tough targets that people saw and penalties for people who overused, some incentives for people who tore out their lawns and stuff like that. And there were things like 'Save the Drop,' which had a very cute cartoony version of a water drop and a clear call to action. But I think [now], it certainly feels like it's less of an urgent issue. My observation here [in Los Angeles] is that the city doesn't behave like a city that's in a drought. You can still drive through the city and see perfect green lawns and the kind of plants and greenery that you wouldn't have naturally in a drought area. I think there are a lot of behaviors here that are in denial of the kind of climate we're in.

It's got to be hard to try and get people to change their behavior. What makes an effective PSA or messaging campaign?

Foleno: Behavior change is the ultimate objective of every campaign we do at the Ad Council. It's harder by an order of magnitude — I don't know what it would be — than to just raise awareness of something, to get people to re-Tweet something or think about it for a minute and then move on. Every campaign has a different set of tools, but we start at the end point – sitting down a year from now, what do we want to see? What does success look like? Then we work backwards from there. You need to be relevant. You need to be emotional. You need to be understandable and single-minded. You also need to know the media landscape. How are you going to reach the people you want to reach? And then you need to be consistent. A lot of things require long-term commitment. The reason we've been working on Smokey Bear for decades is you need to maintain and educate a new generation of the public all the time about wildfire prevention.

Barham: One of the key difficulties of PSAs is you're trying to stop people from doing something they really like doing or you're trying to get them to do something that's going to be more of a hassle than not doing. There are two favorite tactics to get attention, neither of which has been used to strongly in California. The first obvious one is through shock: exaggerating or at least shining a light on how bad things could be if you don't change behavior. The best recent example of this was an Australian campaign for rail safety which was called 'Dumb Ways to Die.'

The other way is through humor. The best recent example of that is called the 'World's Biggest Asshole.' It got lots and lots of attention and talked to people in a way that didn't feel preachy.

OK, I'm emperor for the day and I put you in charge of messaging California's drought. What would you do?

Foleno: I'm a research guy, so the first thing I would do is go out and talk to the folks of California to see what their awareness of the current messaging is — what their perception is, how do they talk about it with their friends and loved ones and neighbors — to get a real sense of where their head is at, from the consumer perspective. From there you'd generate a set of message framings, depending on what you hear back. Those are all testable. You can go out and see which are the most motivating. There are a variety of approaches off the top of my head. There's a social-norming approach, where you let people know that their neighbor is actually using a lot less water than they are. You could talk about the future of California and inject a sense of state pride into it. You could talk about dire consequences down the road if we don't make this a top issue.

Barham: I think there's room to use those two models I talked about [shock and humor], but I think you need to balance that by giving people very practical guidelines for what they should be doing. I would try to think about water conservation in the way that we think about our health, as something that we try to maintain on a day-to-day basis, rather than as a diet, which tends to be a short-term fix to some kind of issue. I think we're in danger of the equivalent of yo-yo dieting, where we take some extreme measures for a short period of time, think that will fix everything and then go back to bad behavior. What we should be trying to do is instill behavior and attitudes that are ongoing and permanent and can be measured and monitored. I think a good model to look at is how a lot of fitness apps work, which is this daily check at how you're doing and the ability to share it with other people, either in your immediate social circle or the broader public.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 20, 2016 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we say Californians cut their water consumption by 17.7 percent in August and that it was "a nearly 10 percent slide" from the previous year's 27 percent reduction. In fact, the difference was 10 percentage points, not 10 percent.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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