First, here’s the problem, as a series of related and overlapping questions:
- Why aren’t average Americans more worried about, and engaged with, climate change?
- Why, if a majority of Americans “believe” that climate change is real, do so few rate it as a high priority for action?
- Why, in this hottest ever year on record, aren’t average Americans badgering their representatives and senators in Congress to DO SOMETHING, and do it NOW?
- Why, after years of messaging about environmental issues in general, and climate change in particular, is the climate change message not gaining more traction?
- Why, when asked to rank their worries did Americans place climate change almost dead last on their list?
Everything is sold to us with advertising. EVERYTHING. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a partial list of things that are hawked with aggressive ad campaigns.
- Pharmaceuticals (ED, diabetes, Afib…)
- Education (trade schools, on-line MBAs…)
- Dating (Match, eHarmony…)
- Sitcoms (with more advertising interrupting them)
- Lawn care
- Hair care
- Baby food
- Diapers (infant, toddler, adult…)
- Fast food
- Slow food
- The American Petroleum Industry
- Koch Industries
- Political candidates
- Political opinions
- Television news
- Child care
- Elder care
- Good causes
- Pain killers
- PSAs (smoking is bad, drinking is bad, drugs are bad… unless you’re talking about prescribed meds, and then… see “Pharmaceuticals”)
Americans are fluent in the language of advertising. Most of us have been marinated in advertising since birth, and respond to it on an almost cellular level. The familiar cadence of the snake oil salesman is deeply understood and being used to sell us everything from denture cream to the conviction that fracking is a benign way to bring Americans clean energy and more jobs.
Most folks think they’re pretty jaded about advertising. It’s common for people to say that they “know how to tune that stuff out” and “don’t really believe” in the pitch. That’s not the case, alas. Advertising works. Despite protestations that we’re “too sophisticated” and can resist the lure of the jingle and the slogan, we are in fact responding to and being influenced by all of that rootsy guitar music, and those images of babies and handsome people having fun. Why? Because modern, sophisticated ad techniques take advantage of how your deep brain operates.
Effective advertising isn’t all about giving you the information you need to make a rational choice. It isn’t only aimed at the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made. It also cleverly aims its messages at the limbic system – the “lizard brain” that deals in emotions, memory, and arousal. And that, of course, is why ads traffic in babies, syrupy music, holiday memories, frolicking families and beautiful, healthy people doing aspirational things, even if those images are laughably unrelated what they’re selling.
While your prefrontal cortex is scoffing and thinking “That’s nonsense! Cooper and Britnee aren’t going to love me more if I take them to Disneyland!” the limbic system is listening, too, and absorbing the lesson. You KNOW the truth, but begin to associate the images of a loving family with the Disney brand – whether you want to or not. Watch one of those beer ads featuring healthy 20-somethings on a hike, and while you KNOW that buying that brand of brew isn’t going to make you adventurous and outdoorsy and slim, your limbic system is buying at least part of what they’re selling. You’re being aroused by the music, and feeling the sensation of happy good times, whether or not you actually believe a word of the voice-over.
Advertising also works by the simple power of repetition. Hear one simple message over and over and over again, and you learn it. For example, I know that Arby’s has “all the meats!” I know DiGiorno is “better than delivery!” And I’ve learned a LOT about Koch Industries since they started running ads on the Rachel Maddow Show. What have I learned? That they’re a great place to work, and care deeply about water quality in the slums of Brazil. I have no idea if either of those things are objectively true – but I sure learned them!
The Koch Brothers know that advertising sells economic ideas and political beliefs as well as it sells products. The Petroleum Council of American knows that it can sell intense pride in America, fear of unemployment, AND “drill, baby – drill!” disguised in a soothing 30 second spot about “clean energy from right here at home,” featuring an anodyne cast of blandly diverse actors. And they know that if they keep repeating those messages – those simple, clear messages – they’ll eventually move the dial on public opinion.
In short – if you want to sell something, hire a good advertising agency and get your billboards and 30 second spots out there. And keep at it, too, with simple, easy-to-grasp messages packaged to arouse the lizard brain. It’s only a matter of time before your audience associates the feelings triggered by the carefully chosen images and music with your simple message, and bingo! You’ve gained traction. You’ve gotten people fired up and ready to do something.
Which begs the question: if the Kochs and BP and Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Council and their profit-driven, emitting ilk are out there advertising like crazy, why is there no ad campaign aimed at firing up Americans to take personal and collective action on climate change? Why are there no PSAs repeating incessantly that climate change is already upon us, and it’s time to give up meat, turn down the heat, and call your Senator?
Why aren’t there any billboards hammering home the point that the time is NOW and we have to act? Why aren’t there any pop-ups on Yahoo’s landing page intoning “In case you were wondering – this is what climate change looks like!” and featuring a picture of flood victims in South Carolina? Why aren’t there any messages with soothing, folksy guitar songs and video of soldiers on patrol somewhere in the Middle East, talking about working together as Americans to lead the world on climate action?!
Mostly, of course, because climate change doesn’t have an industry organization. Climate change has many, many activists fighting against it in many and various ways, but it doesn’t have a single powerful lobby. There are multifarious groups working for clean energy, carbon legislation, and so forth – but no ONE big group that has the financial clout to take out an ad campaign or two. There are individuals – from movie stars to nobodies like me – tweeting away in a frenzy of intensity, but we seem to be mostly tweeting to ourselves.
Information about climate change is available, to be sure. It’s covered in the media – although mostly as a “debate” or “conversation.” It’s in popular culture: take “Years of Living Dangerously,” for which there was a robust ad campaign. But that ad campaign was for one TV show – and in order for an individual to engage more deeply, it was still necessary for them to take the leap and opt in. And to do that requires a level of motivation as a baseline.
At the moment, most Americans are NOT motivated by and engaged with climate change. Whether or not they “believe” or are “very concerned,” they aren’t ready to storm the barricades. They aren’t primed to take the leap and take personal responsibility for their actions to address it. Most Americans aren’t tuned in to the same frequency as those of us who are already passionately committed to doing something about it.
Many people say they “believe in” climate change but then are honestly gobsmacked when someone suggests to them that climate change is more of a personal threat to them than, say, terrorism. They don’t get the connection between climate change and their breakfast – or climate change and their health – or climate change and their homeowners insurance.
Advertising has the power to dramatically change that dynamic. Advertising has the power to put climate change at the forefront of the national conversation. It has the power to carry simple, bold messages, like:
It’s time to do everything in our power to slash emissions and slow the progression of climate change.
You’ve been lied to.
You’re in danger.
This is urgent! This is happening NOW – to YOU!
Nuance can come later. The thrilling emotional impetus must come first. Before we get a groundswell of citizen action, people need to get fired up. Before we get EVERYONE out in the streets marching and demanding that Congress stop lying and take action, we need them moved, and touched, and energized… and furious.
And to get them there, they need to be SOLD ON climate change. Sold on it – with advertising.
We have the power of truth on our side. There’s no need to feel grubby or dishonest. Advertising isn’t necessarily or inherently about selling snake oil – it’s about influencing people by using emotional connections and repetition of easily-grasped concepts. The climate change movement needs to use this American lingua franca to our benefit!
Now, there might be a billionaire out there who is on the right side of history vis-à-vis climate change and would be willing to splash the cash on a few gripping PSAs. In fact, I am probably going right over to Kickstarter after I publish this. But I think there’s a critical role for the government here, too.
There’s been much chatter about the need for a “new greatest generation” and a “war time level of mobilization.” It got me thinking – specifically, about the fact that during WWII, the federal government created the United States Office of War Information to:
“…formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, motion picture, and other facilities, information programs designed to facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the Government.”
I’m calling on the next president of the United States to immediately upon taking office, create a United States Office of Climate Change Information, to:
“…formulate and carry out, through the use of press, radio, TV, motion picture, electronic and other platforms, information programs designed to: facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding of the imminent threat of climate change to each American; report on the progress of the Government’s efforts and activities devoted to reducing emissions, developing renewable energy sources, and lowering the nation’s carbon footprint; provide information on the climate change policies, activities, and aims of the Government; and let each citizen know both how critically urgent it is that they pitch in and do their part in combating this planet-wide catastrophe and that it is vital that the United States of America lead the world.”
In a word: advertising.
I’m envisaging advertising by the government as analogous to the war information in WWII: part of a broader strategy. There were many governmental agencies and actions involved in mobilizing for war. In the case of climate change I think that broad spectrum communications – advertising – is an immediate need and requisite first step.
If we elect a President Sanders, we know he’ll be focused on climate change from Day One. But in order to actually do anything – and do it fast enough – he can’t have Congress blocking him every step of the way. That means he has to have all Americans on board to either chuck out or change the positions of the liars and deniers who are currently stalking the halls of the House and Senate. Those who suggest that we need a “war time mobilization effort” have it right. Part of that must include a vigorous, effective advertising campaign the likes of which Americans haven’t seen since WWII.
That’s where an energized, informed, activist American people comes into it. The messaging I propose should be designed to hit people like they’ve been gut shot, and let them know that years of inaction by foot-dragging, heavily-lobbied, and bought-off politicians has led us to this perilous position, facing a future of hellish heat waves, devastating droughts, rampant “once in 1,000 years” storms, epic deluges, terrible public health challenges, inundated coastal cities, and hordes of frantic climate change refugees.
This isn’t the time for business as usual. It’s not the time for long explanations. It’s not the time for nuance and for coaxing people along with rational explanations for why carbon dioxide can, yes, be a very good thing (in moderation) for our friends the plants, but at higher concentrations in the atmosphere beings to trap more heat which….. zzzzzz…..
The years of teaching and educating and imploring and exhorting Americans to get worried about polar bears and shrinking ice sheets at the far reaches of our globe just hasn’t mobilized enough of us. Yes, it’s mobilized some. I am not overlooking all the excellent education and communication that’s been done. I was at the Seattle People’s Climate march, for Pete’s sake!
But our “leaders” in DC are very well aware that most of us simply aren’t fussed enough about climate change for them to pay it much heed, either. They read the polls. They see where public opinion sits. So they know they can keep on taking the money and lying like rugs (looking right at you, Senator McConnell) and not get voted out of office. They know full well that they can hem and haw, splutter and obfuscate, deny, declare they’re not scientists, throw snowballs, and suffer no consequences. And so while the dial has been moving recently – and President Obama has been raising a bit of a ruckus all by himself – we’re not moving in the right direction fast enough.
It’s time to crank it up to 11.
We need an electorate that’s furious at government inaction on climate change and will vote for politicians who promise to take immediate action. We need an electorate who won’t put up with their lies any longer, and demand that their representatives do their will on this most urgent and pressing of issues. We also need a population that is fired up enough to take the personal actions required, like giving up or rationing meat, driving less, buying green and renewable and local products, and more.