Advertising Could Have Saved the World from Climate Change (and Maybe Still Can)
AN INNOVATION MARKETING WHAT IF STUDY
Climate change is, without a doubt, the greatest existential crisis that humanity has ever faced - as if you haven’t heard that before. But today, that can be said with a mountain of scientific data to back it up and, finally, a majority of public, political, and corporate agreement on its validity and the seriousness of the threat. As we all know, that wasn’t always the case.
It took a long time to get here, it was a winding road, and we’re only just now starting to look seriously at the types of societal coalitions needed to really enact the necessary planetary change. Even still, as evidenced by the US departure from the Paris Climate Accord, there’s plenty of hesitation to accept the fact that climate change is happening, or at least that it’s something we can effectively manage.
Time is, unfortunately, something that we’re quickly running out of. But it’s something that we had an opportunity to capitalize on when the science around climate change, and the subsequent debates, really kicked off. So the question is: what if we had changed the public perception about climate change earlier in the process? Would we be in a better place to deal with the threat? Would we have greater consensus among our political and business leaders on how to move forward? Would we actively be “fighting” climate change as a unified population?
Or, more specifically, what if Innovation Marketing had been used in the fight against climate change? For those new to the concept, which is probably all of you since I just came up with it not too long ago, Innovation Marketing uses marketing and advertising techniques over the very long term (think 5-10 years at minimum), the focus of which is societal, cultural, and technological shifts without a particular product to sell or company to promote. It shows what our collective future will be in the best possible ways thus shifting public acceptance of inevitable technology and sustainability practices.
It’s obviously impossible to know the answers to the above questions, but we can make some educated inferences. To start, we need to look at just how long we’ve known about climate change and how it has been presented to the public along the way. We also need to recognize that, as is happening today, public perception greatly influences the directions of politicians (who pander to perception to achieve re-election) and companies (who pander to perception to increase profits) towards a sustainable future. So it’s fair to assume that had public perception been different at an earlier point along the climate change timeline, so too would the political and business worlds of the time have followed.
Somewhat stunningly, the first proposal that burning fossil fuels – thus putting carbon into the atmosphere – could raise the temperature of the planet was actually put forward back in 1896 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. For the purposes of brevity we will fast forward to the United States (as that is where the greatest amount of polarization over the climate crisis is concentrated) in the 1970s, but it’s important to note that there was a lot going on between the late 19th century and 20th centuries in understanding climate science. In the 70s, the concept of the earth warming a few degrees, and the dire consequences of that happening, began to seep into the public consciousness and started to slowly shift from fringe environmentalism to a more mainstream conversation topic, albeit with a lot of gaps in the science that still needed to be filled in. The 70s and 80s saw news organizations reporting on record-breaking yearly temperatures and the hole in the ozone, images of receding mountain snows and crumbling glaciers making their way into our lives, and agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (or NOAA) established.
Throughout all that time, however, climate science was hotly (pun intended) debated among academics while the general public, and therefore politicians and business leaders, gave it little time or attention. It was either too large a problem, too costly a problem, or too far into the future to garner real concern. It wasn’t until the late 80s that two important, yet opposing, outfits were created that would more strongly shape public perception: in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established and in response, in 1989 the Global Climate Coalition was formed by fossil fuel companies to refute climate science.
IPCC reports began to churn out in the 90s, which resulted in some major international conferences on the subject and attempts to reign in fossil fuel emissions (the Kyoto Protocols comes to mind here) but which were largely ineffective. For the public, the concept of reshaping society to reduce the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere simply seemed too big for a person, or even a society, to comprehend. And still, the story is being told through political news stories, both domestic and international, which while informative are not the most effective at capturing the public’s attention or imagination.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that climate began to get real mainstream attention – mostly via sources like books, art, and movies – and begins to really integrate into the public conscience as a serious threat. As scientific reports began to paint the realities of a changing climate, science fiction creators brought to life worlds in which climate has run amok and the world is, more or less, destroyed as a result. Oryx and Crake from Margaret Atwood, The Day After Tomorrow film, Manifest Destiny by painter Alexis Rockman, and of course Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth were some of the first visual representations (just to name a few) of what climate change could look like and how it could effect us going forward. But, of course, for every piece of media that showed the potentially disastrous effects there were just as many which attempted to refute the concept altogether – mostly and funded by right-wing conservative groups and fossil fuel interests.
There are a few important takeaways here:
For more than 30 years, while the science of climate change continued to progress, the public perception remained fairly stagnant, or even ignorant with the main sources of information being news reports (TV, radio, magazine, newspaper, etc) and, for those intrepid souls, scientific journals. Competing reports on the validity of the science further muddied the understanding of the threat.
It took science fiction to largely bring the threat into the public sphere. Even then it didn’t happen until the 2000s and it’s taken another 20 years for that to really sink in to the point of real public support (not even action!) on the necessary scale. We see agreement on the problem, but on none of the solutions.
When the climate change storytelling did start to surface (or “cli-fi” as it’s been dubbed), it was always as an apocalyptic image – i.e. we all suffer through climate disaster if we do nothing. But this type of messaging is neither sustainable nor actionable. It shows the problem in very stark terms, and we all now agree on the severity, but it only presents a roadmap for disaster, not success. When made to feel the world is crumbling around us and needs saving, the average person simply feels overwhelmed.
Now let’s say, with a grain of salt, that when the very first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970 there was a nationwide launch of an advertising campaign which showed what our world would look like not as a result of inaction – apocalypse – but as a result of action – a verdant, green, temperate future full of sustainable industries, renewable power, and, most notably, no rising seas. It’s the type of future that we all want to live in, but unless you’re a science fiction creator you most likely have never taken the time to sit down and truly imagine it.
To consider the potential impact of such a campaign, it’s important to recognize the effect of positive advertising vs negative advertising. The data backs up the fact that ads which focus on the positive, or people’s optimism, make a brand far more appealing to consumers. In 2013, a Belgian study of 1500 consumers showed that when watching a positive TV spot, their attitude toward the advertised brand improves. This reaction happened regardless of the product category or its relevance in the consumer’s day-to-day life.
The beauty industry represents a great example of this. Using positive self-image ad campaigns to boost their target consumer’s self-esteem levels, beauty brands have generated massive brand loyalties and even begun to shift the conventional norms around what beauty is and means.
So it’s not a stretch to think that advertising our future in a way that’s both realistic and idealistic – the way that our world will be if we all band together and tackle this massive problem looming over us – could have a great effect on generating action from the public. It offers the public a view into a life they want to live, which is basically what every lifestyle ad does – “drink this soda and you’ll be as cool and carefree as everyone you see here” – but on a much grander scale. Suddenly there is a vivid image and story around where we as a global community really want to be and how we really want to live. The planet is the brand, and the campaigns build loyalty to that brand. As a result, the potential for action by the global community to reach that “brand goal” of our society is enormous.
This is the concept around which Innovation Marketing revolves. Advertising and marketing techniques can greatly reduce the friction of acceptance to new concepts, challenges, and technologies.
This is not necessarily a new concept – PSAs have been doing this for decades, with mixed results. The difference here is in the length of the campaigns and the issues addressed. A PSA might target an immediate threat to society, such as opioid addiction or poverty, and do so for a few months. Campaigns coming from outfits such as the World Wildlife Fund, which has created some of the best environmentally-based ads of the past 20 years, still focus heavily on the immediacy of threats to the environment.
Innovation Marketing looks at a broader view (societal shifts) over a much longer period of time – this is real futurism advertising – and in doing so can effectively reduce the amount of time and friction to a societal acceptance of new ideas. It’s basically building a long form story about the future we want, and then relaying short form “chapters” on what that is. By leaning on the storytelling tenets of science fiction – which clearly commands the public’s attention as evidenced by the use of it in the 2000s in bringing climate change to the public forefront – and using marketing techniques to put such a major topic in front of people in the same way that we put the latest gadget or food craze in front of people, the amount of time between an initial understanding of a challenge like climate change to a public coalition to deal with it could be dramatically decreased.
What if that timeline for climate change acceptance (and action) had gone from 50 years (1970 – 2020) to 40, or even 30, years? Even if a campaign had started in earnest when climate change really began to take shape in the public eye in the 2000s, could we have reduced that timeline to something more like 15 or 10 years rather than 20? And if so, could we have, by now, brought together the greater public, politicians, and business leaders to keep our global warming effects at or below 1.5 degrees (the recommended benchmark from the IPCC)?
Obviously, there’s no way to know the answer to that – but there is perhaps a way to test it today.
The global COVID-19 pandemic, for all the horrible toll it has taken on peoples’ lives and countries’ economies, has had a positive impact on the environment. Global lockdown has meant factories putting out less pollutants, less cars on the road, less planes in the air, less ships on the seas. Supply chains have been decimated, but it all leads to less carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. Fossil fuel emissions are way down, giving us a glimpse into what a future without them might actually be like for our relationship with the planet.
We should, today, start building an ad campaign to shift the public perception on the impacts of the virus. Of course, there is no discounting the devastating effects COVID-19 has had across the world, but if we come out of this pandemic and go back to business as usual then we risk squandering any gains made in controlling climate change during this time. What we need is a respectful campaign that recognizes how hard this experience has been, how much we have lost, and how much rebuilding needs to be done, but also how we must do so in a way that puts sustainability at the forefront of that effort.
A quick Google search offers a whole host of articles from very reputable sources claiming that sustainability is a necessity after the pandemic and green leadership is going to be in higher demand than it ever has been. The writing, as they say, is on the wall. And while it’s commendable, and necessary, that business leaders start to think differently about how we approach sustainability post-pandemic there will be little to no significant change until the general public gets on board, which means voting into office leaders who align with those goals and support companies whose values reflect them. That means this effort needs to focus on the B2C, but can’t leave behind the B2B market.
To do that, we need to show people what the world will be as a result of that action, and how it can, in fact, be much greater than the one that we left behind. We need to start spreading that message right away, and keep it going for the foreseeable future so that it becomes a part of the public zeitgeist, deeply embedded in our daily culture, until we can barely remember a time when we didn’t put sustainable living first.
Advertising could still save the world if only we would let it.