Rebranding a carbon tax


Mad Men: experts at selling the public on new ideas

It’s tax season right now and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that taxes are not fun. Yes taxes are necessary and fund things we all use and enjoy, but the process of paying taxes isn’t sexy, it’s not fun or exciting. There is a negative association to the act of paying taxes. Not necessarily to what those taxes fund, but rather for the process, the act of paying a faceless entity some of your hard-earned paycheck. These negative associations are tied to our heuristic biases and we need to address these biases head on if we want widespread support for new tax proposals. This is important for implementing a carbon tax.

Heuristic biases affect how we perceive and evaluate information. The heuristic bias of anchoring and adjustment is when you start off with something you know (the anchor) and then adjust your opinion in the direction you think is appropriate. With taxes the anchor belief is “taxes are not fun, I don’t like paying anything called a tax.” As the public hears about a new tax (like a carbon tax), they evaluate it through the lens of “I don’t like paying taxes”. The name ‘carbon tax’, although descriptive, is the first public opinion hurdle to overcome.

In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the authors describe ways people make decisions and how those decisions can be ‘nudged’ in different directions. We have two ways of thinking and processing information, an Automatic System that is intuitive (your gut reaction), and a Reflective Systems that is contemplative and rational (your conscious thought).

While our policy makers use their Reflective Systems to debate taxes and write new tax policies, the public at large is using their Automatic Systems to instantly categorize anything labeled as a tax as a bad thing, an act of an overreaching government taking money out of their pockets. No matter how good a carbon tax may be for the environment and for society, it will face public opinion hurdles so long as it is called a tax. To change the reception of a carbon tax, we need to change the story associated with it to appeal to the Automatic System. Appealing to the public’s Automatic Systems will require rebranding a carbon tax into something more sexy.

Changing how you frame an issue can greatly influence how people think about it. To implement a carbon tax we need to focus on the delivery as much as the content. Currently the narrative is “people and industry pollute; they should pay to pollute more; a carbon tax will do that”. That narrative is based on pollution being the status quo and trying to convince the public that we need to change the status quo. Pro carbon tax advocates should work on changing the narrative to “clean air and clean water are a communal good; any and all pollution should be paid for; a carbon tax is a good thing because it protects your communal goods”.

Reframing the narrative around a carbon tax is important to generating widespread support. Let the policy be written by policy experts. Bring in the Mad Men to do the branding and sell it to the public.



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