‘Selling’ climate change: are climate ads ever any good?
This article was originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business website on Friday 1st June, 2012.
Courting controversy usually catapults an advertising campaign on to the global stage – but as the Heartland Institute, the climate-denial lobbyists, recently discovered the hard way, the attention isn’t always positive. Their recent billboard comparing those who accept the science of climate change to the Unabomer Ted Kaczynski was an unmitigated PR disaster, exposing their marginal position in the debate and losing them hundreds of thousands of dollars of corporate sponsorship.
Condemnation of the ill-advised campaign was almost universal: several big corporate names (including PepsiCo) rushed to distance themselves from Heartland’s extremist position and to cut their financial links. While it is worth asking why a household name such as this – with public carbon reduction commitments – was still involved with a group like Heartland, its response demonstrated a simple but important point: no credible organisation wants to be caught on the wrong side of the climate debate.
The handful of companies (Microsoft and Pfizer among them) that have not distanced themselves from Heartland are now under pressure to do so. Climate denial is bad for business.
But what about advertising campaigns on the other side of the fence? How effective have campaigns aimed at selling climate change been?
Some of the most high-profile adverts have not fared much better than the billboards at the centre of the Heartland fiasco. Several years ago a UK government TV ad named Bedtime Stories was withdrawn following complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about newspaper adverts that accompanied it. The advert depicted a young girl being read a scary story about climate change as cartoon sea levels rose around her house, but was criticised by climate change communication specialists on the basis that using scare-tactics is not an especially good way of encouraging sustainable behaviour.
Even more notorious was the No Pressure video, released by the campaign group 10:10. Despite being directed by Richard Curtis and starring a cast of A-list celebrities, the video was a communications disaster – in one gory scene, children in a classroom were shown graphically “exploding” for expressing climate sceptic views. Naturally, climate sceptic groups condemned the campaign – although that didn’t stop Heartland going several steps further with its “serial killer” advertisements.
These examples suggest that on both sides of the debate, there have been some ill-advised attempts at climate change communication. But there is perhaps a deeper reason that the relationship between climate change and advertising has never been straightforward: selling a complex issue such as climate change through fairly superficial media such as posters or short films is not necessarily a good idea.
On the one hand, the tools of social marketing – applying the logic of marketing physical products to social or moral issues such as climate change – have been found to produce measureable changes in well-defined behaviours, such as use of public transport. But there are serious question marks about whether social marketing offers the right set of tools for catalysing the individual, social and political shifts necessary to make the transition to a low carbon society.
In particular, although social marketing may be effective in achieving short term goals in changing behaviour, it embodies a way of looking at the world which privileges consumers over citizens, targets individuals rather than social groups or communities, and pays little attention to the sorts of values that – in the long term – are likely to generate much greater environmental engagement.
In short, while the tools of the marketing industry might be useful for developing the green consumer economy, they are limited in their capacity to produce more substantive engagement.
In Bristol, a petition is being considered by the council that seeks to ban advertising in outdoor public spaces. Given the evidence that the materialistic values promoted by the vast majority of adverts (even those that seek to sell green products) are ultimately counterproductive in generating a society-wide response to climate change that is proportionate to the scale of the challenge, perhaps the most effective advertising for climate change could be no advertising at all.
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