Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It pays to advertise

Advertising.  What if advertising is a big part of the solution?

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? 
Advertising is the lingua franca of the United States of America.  We swim in a sea of advertising from the moment we wake up until the moment we fall asleep.  We are surrounded by, engulfed in, and showered with countless advertising messages every day – from radio ads with the morning weather report, to billboards as we drive to work, to advertising hoardings around the field at the Big Game, to relentless streams ofcommercials at the movies and on television, to every show on TV (even the ones “On Demand”) and You Tube and Yahoo and all of the websites we use.

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…)
  • Cars
  • Lawyers
  • Movies
  • Sitcoms (with more advertising interrupting them)
  • Gifts
  • TVs
  • Lawn care
  • Hair care
  • Deodorant
  • Tech
  • Games
  • 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
  • Insurance
  • 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”)
  • Love
And that’s just off the top of my head.

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.

Don’t believe me?  Think about any popular product being advertised these days, and then remember HOW it’s being pitched.  Cell phones are technical gadgets – but they’re pitched with moms and families and catchy, hook-laden music that stirs the heart strings.  Same with cars, riding lawn mowers, blood thinners, and big box retail outlets.  And it’s impossible to enumerate the unrelated agglomeration of products being sold to you with sex.

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.

So let’s get Bernie Sanders elected, and then let’s call on him to start by getting Americans fired up and marching in the same direction – which is roughshod over the folks in Washington who want to stand in the way of us saving our one and only home.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Climate change communications... are we doing it wrong?

Note: At the exact moment I hit "publish" on this piece when I posted it to dailykos today, President Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline application.  Hah!  Nevertheless.....

In my last post I fulminated about the lies being told in the media about the Keystone XL pipeline and climate change.  Specifically, I called out MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show and the insistence of host Joe Scarborough and Senator Joe Manchin (D, WV) on one popular piece of misinformation – that the pipeline will create 40,000 jobs.

To say that the veracity of that claim is hemmed about on all sides by caveats is to stunningly understate the case.  Nevertheless, Scarborough and Machin said it on TV, in their outdoor voices, and were not challenged by anyone.  Given that the pipeline is a late pipeline, and is pushin' up the daisies, I won't link to the politifact take-down of that jobs claim here.  The point is moot.  However...

Into the same time frame came a piece by Seth Borenstein on a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found that, while most Americans know that the climate is changing, they just don’t really give a flying flap.

Given that climate change will bring dangerous, damaging weather (got flood insurance, folks?), increases in public health concerns (think asthma and mosquitos, just for a starter), possible food insecurity, and the potential for global conflict and mass migration, among other horrors, it would seem to behoove us to snap out of our complacency and press the government for urgent action.  It was also seems to make sense to get rid of our SUVs and monster pick-up trucks, swear off factory-raised meat, and plant trees in profusion. 

American climate change communicators and activists are not shooting ourselves in the foot or alienating people when we call clarion attention to the criticality of the situation.  In order to make the systemic changes necessary to drastically slash emissions, to begin the hard work of mitigation and shoring up systems to withstand whatever climatic conditions are coming down the pike, and to navigate the treacherous waters ahead, ALL Americans need to be not just well informed, but mobilized and ready to move.  ALL Americans need to be on board!

We all need to know what we’re up against, what the time table is, what the consequences will be, and what climate change has already wrought.  And we need to get that message out effectively to more people than we have reached thus far.

Only then will we have enough people in the electorate who know the urgency of the situation well enough to make climate change a priority when voting – and (and I think this is key) will storm the barricades if government isn’t moving fast or urgently or effectively enough.

Yet Borenstein reports:

...fewer than one in four Americans are extremely or very worried about it, according the poll of 1,058 people. About one out of three Americans are moderately worried and the highest percentage of those polled - 38 percent - were not too worried or not at all worried.
Despite high profile preaching by Pope Francis, only 36 percent of Americans see global warming as a moral issue and only a quarter of those asked see it as a fairness issue, according to the poll which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

That so many Americans haven’t yet made the connection between their own urgent self-interests and the changing climate reflects a number of realities, including:

*) The media either doesn’t cover climate change or presents it in the context of false balance.  Rare is the report of a devastating flood, for example, that includes a sentence noting that climate change might have made the situation worse.  Media reports on the “conversation” or “the debate,” rather than reporting the scientific facts.  (Insert dark muttering about who owns the largest news outlets.)

*) Many (largely but not only) right wing politicians have eagerly taken campaign donations and other perks from fossil fuel corporations in exchange for lying about climate change.  To cite just one of the more egregious examples: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who appears to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal industry.  Mis- and disinformation is rife, and our leadership in Washington DC riddled with active deniers.

*) We humans are wired to react to terrors that occur in the short-term, like “Snake!” or “Gun toting intruder!!” while being relatively complacent about threats that are perceived as a distant future contingency.  We’re evolutionarily fine-tuned to stuff happening NOW, and our brains are wired to respond to short-term disasters, not to something phrased as “a potential for 2.0 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures by the year 2100.”

*) Because of the scant attention paid in the popular media, we on the left - progressive activists and climate change communicators - have been doing most of the outreach about climate change.  We've made great strides in raising awareness, but we seemed to have reached the upper limits of our market penetration, at least using our current tactics.  We're not doing it wrong, but we need a few new tools in the tool box.

The first three bullets are true enough, but they're not what I want to talk about here.  Instead, I think we need to address the last point.  

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

As a registered Democrat I am painfully aware of my party’s tendency to speak softly while shooting ourselves in the foot.  We do not excel in snappy one-liners and zingy come-backs.  We aren’t willing to elide a detail here or there in order to get the main point across.  We do not excel at manufacturing, and sticking robotically to, talking points. 

I’ve observed that my brothers and sisters on the left are more likely to present several sides of a subject, and lard a discussion with caveats and footnotes.  We can be earnest and a little preachy.  We want to seem intelligent and rational and nuanced.  We want you to know we did our research, and will bore you with it at length. 

And climate change lends itself to this style of communication.  While the central precept is simple, there are many nuanced details and lines of evidence to consider, and these can lead inexorably to the aforementioned caveats, charts, graphs, and dense tangles of off-putting scientific jargon.

It’s easy to fail at crafting a message that compels the attention of people who aren’t naturally tuned to our frequency.  It’s easy to lose audiences who aren’t already primed to hear our message.  And even when we do come up with a headline we think will grab hearts and minds, we sometimes don’t recognize that there’s a big group of people who doesn’t share our priorities and concerns.  Polar bears and penguins don’t move everyone.  Neither does coffee, or merlot, or the fate of people in faraway lands.

We need to learn how to talk to the people who aren’t tuned in to Radio Progressive.  We need to add a channel on a frequency they’ll listen to, and can hear.

Take Bill Nye the Science Guy.  I adore Bill Nye.  He’s got a twinkle in his eye and facts on the tip of his tongue.  Bill Nye speaks truth to power, and isn’t even all that earnest and preachy.  Trouble is that to a goodly number of Americans, Bill Nye is the nerdy, unpopular brainiac they used to give swirlies in junior high.

Then there’s John Oliver.  Of course I love him, but every time I see headline on a progressive website to the effect of “John Oliver destroys climate change deniers in hilarious video!” I cringe.  People – he’s English!  He’s nerdy.  He’s sarcastic.  He peers into the Rube Goldberg edifice of American cultural life and makes wry, critical observations.  There is a broad swath of Americans who will be unmoved at best, or offended at worst, by his erudite British sniffing at what they’ll perceive he thinks is their idiocy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, and “Cosmos” host has a little bit more of a regular guy vibe, but he’s an astrophysicist.  He’s going to use science and reason and graphs when he talks.  To quote those recent irritating GEICO commercials – “it’s what he does!”

Being intelligent and good and rational isn’t bad: it’s just not enough.  Being intellectual and scientific and reasonable doesn’t play all that well to large swaths of the American electorate.  It’s not a sign of weakness – or an abandonment of our Lib/Dem/Prog ideals – to acknowledge that we must start reaching out to people using language and messaging tactics that they’ll respond to. 

Tried and true GOP/conservative communications tactics – like using family, faith, and patriotism to frame the narrative – are tried and true because they work.  Making a simple statement of fact/values and instantly pivoting to a powerful talking point is a typical GOP strategy.  It’s one of the reasons conservatives can be so irritating to debate with – but that statement/pivot tactic works.  Why don’t those of us on the left do that more?

I used to be conflicted about trotting out those tactics and memes to educate people about climate change.  I shouldn’t have been.  Climate change is the most important issue that’s ever faced humanity, and so far, efforts from the left to fire up “average Americans” have been largely inadequate.

  • Take patriotism: I suppose I am patriotic, but at the same time I’m deeply conscious of what America doesn’t get right, and what we’ve done wrong.  I am not moved by appeals to me on the basis of “American exceptionalism” – but a lot of Americans are.  We should be appealing to their sense of patriotism. 
  • Family: Begging folks to “think of your grandkids” is off the mark because it drives home the notion that climate change is far in the future.  But talking about climate change’s current impacts to families and children makes a lot of sense.  People are dealing with the personal and financial impacts of climate change right now – but they don’t know it.  We need to tell them.
  •  American exceptionalism: That’s something I don’t believe in.  Others do, and we should appeal to those people to consider that America is exceptional enough to lead the world in this urgent work.  A popular “denier” talking point is to whinge about how “China won’t keep their promises.”  We must craft a powerful counter-narrative, and drive home the point that America can take powerful action – just like we did in WWII, let’s say.

In short: we know the science, and we know the shit is hitting the fan.  So we’ve got to stop hedging and offering caveats.  We can continue a nuanced discussion of “average global fluctuations of temperature since the Industrial Revolution” among ourselves - but for other audiences, we need to replace that sort of argle bargle with simple, declarative statements and startling, compelling talking points.

We urgently need to connect with the people who haven’t tuned it, or who don’t get what we’re flapping our gums about because they’ve gotten the impression that climate change is arcane, abstruse and not happening right now.  It’s time to take a page from the right wing playbook – to use blunt, confident assertions and make broad appeals to American exceptionalism, patriotism, and self-interest.

The Tea Party is famous for all sorts of things, including Sarah Palin, the word “moran,” and getting their rabble well and truly roused.  We progressives laugh at their simplistic, perfervid communications style.  But you know what?  That sort of sloganeering and rabble-rousing works.  Did you happen to notice who won Kentucky’s race for Governor this week?  The Tea Party guy.  More half-baked ideas than a boulangerie with a broken oven, but he got elected.

If we don’t talk to people who aren't tuned to the frequency of liberal persuasion, who aren’t motivated or don't have the time to read something long and discursive, who shut down when regaled with statistics, who are accustomed to the timbre and cadence of right wing political speech and are more likely to be persuaded by arguments in that style because it’s familiar, and who respond to the classic GOP tactic statement/pivot, then we are leaving a lot of potential allies on the table.  We already know that we haven’t gotten through with polar bears and pie charts!

As George Bernard Shaw is said to have opined, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We don’t need to replace our pie charts and penguins.  But we should consider adding some mom, flag, and apple pie.

Next time – Fun with Facebook!  In which I use GOP and Tea Party talking tactics and re-work some climate change communications.  Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned!