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Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
Sep 28

When you are selling, but the public isn’t buying

The New York Times‘ “Green Inc.” blog had a very interesting article this morning on compact fluorescent light bulbs (C.F.L.s) and the public’s apparent disdain for the product.  Several key paragraphs…

In a September 18 letter to C.F.L. industry stakeholders, Richard Karney, Energy Star products manager, said that national sales of the bulbs have declined 25 percent from their peak in 2007, with sales in some regions such as Vermont and parts of Massachusetts declining 35 to 50 percent. Further, he noted, shipments of C.F.L.s — which are supposed to last far longer than traditional incandescents – are down 49 percent in 2009 over 2007 levels….

Despite more than a decade of costly C.F.L. promotions — including giveaways, discounted prices and rebates — the bulbs have failed to capture the hearts (and sockets) of American consumers. Mr. Karney said that in regions where C.F.L. campaigns have been heaviest, 75 percent of screw-based sockets still contain incandescents. Nationally, about 90 percent of residential sockets are still occupied by incandescents, D.O.E. has reported….

“For those who believe The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will make C.F.L.s the default choice for consumer lighting needs,” wrote Mr. Karney, “I again urge caution.”

Obviously, this is not what supporters of this provision of the Act  expected.  After a decade of work, a coalition of environmental groups, labor and some manufacturers finally convinced Congress and President Bush to pass a law that marked the beginning of the end for the old incandescent light bulb.  For the longest time, two of the biggest challenges this coalition faced were price and quality.  The bulbs were significantly more expensive and many consumers found the light put out by the bulbs too harsh (they also didn’t work with dimmer switches).  But technical improvements, advocates argued, combined with cost savings (these bulbs use less electricity than traditional bulbs) and a greener consumer were supposed to make C.F.L.s acceptable to, if not popular with, the public.

Now two years, the technical flaws have begun to go away.  Many low cost bulbs now cost about $2 (still much more expensive than traditional bulbs, but still a lot better than before).  There have also been a lot of advancements in lighting technology so the difference if quality has also gone down. (And some work with dimmers!)

So why is the public not buying?

Obviously, this is a public policy blog, not a marketing one, but I think it is fair to say that cost is still a factor.  But since there have been both subsidies and public education campaigns in support C.F.L. adoption, what happens, as the article states, as we get closer to 2012 and the public can no longer purchase traditional bulbs?  Will governments continue to fund education programs, such as the one in California that the article mentions? Does the U.S. government delay the phase out?  Or will the government essentially tell the American public to “deal with it?”  A couple of snide Wall Street Journal editorials talking about the failure of government to pick winners and losers are guaranteed, but will there be any long-term political implications?

Time will tell, but this will be an interesting subject to watch over the next several years.  What do you think?

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide