Climate change just hit the zeitgeist. Here’s how advertising can catch up.
We’re living in a bubble and we need to pop it. For the past eight years I’ve worked at Greenpeace, communicating the threat of climate change, of fragile icecaps and warming seas. But we’re not going fast enough. We need to get this issue into popular culture more fully and more clearly. And to do that, we need help from the experts.
I just saw Mad Max, Fury Road — a two hour story of climate change gone beserk. The desperate thirst for water unleashed by the citadel’s gates is more vivid than any UN report. The fear of scarcity and the fantasy of abundance hit me like a hammer. The film confirmed a long-held suspicion: if you want to communicate the brutal power of climate change, art is where it’s at. Art is everything.
One of the reasons Mad Max is such a triumph is that it follows an important new rule: make climate change the setting, not the plot. This insight was given to me by the supremely clever Jonathan Rowson and I’ve cherished it ever since. Stop talking about ‘climate change’ as an abstract problem that must be tackled. Hysterical pleas to ‘save the climate’ are nonsensical and off putting. Have you ever heard anyone actually say the word climate in real life?
Instead, let’s look at how it manifests itself and what that means for human relationships. Films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Interstellar show how people react and adapt to giant floods or long term droughts. Sometimes they even make jokes when their fields are dry, or make love while the rain falls. They coexist naturally but around them something is profoundly different, like the faint ring of a tuning fork. It’s the spectre of a future we all face — and millions of us are experiencing together in darkened cinemas.
My fear is that while this is undoubtedly powerful, it may be too subliminal. Movies don’t work if they’re too closely linked to the real world. Mad Max, Fury Road is a great film, but it’s smart enough to keep its climate message firmly in the background. But if art is to play a role in solving this monstrous problem we may need to be more explicit. We need people who can turn an emotional story into a cold, hard sale.
Right now the advertising industry is mostly silent on climate change. The big agencies are worried that it’s too politically charged to take on, that it risks offending existing clients or alienating new ones. Some agencies work pro bono for NGOs, but too often this seems aimed at winning awards rather than create something genuinely popular. There are notable exceptions, like Barton F. Graf 9000’s Climate Name Change, or Don’t Panic’s Song of Oil, Ice and Fire. But we’re talking about the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced here. Where’s everyone else?
Here’s a suggestion for my friends in advertising. Instead of waiting for Greenpeace or WWF to give you a brief, take the campaign on yourself. Integrate climate change into your existing work — whether that’s futuristic renewable energy, or stories about people living through weird weather extremes. Even better, make some new work that looks at the root causes of the problem like — dare I say it — the throwaway culture in which we all live.
This seems counterintuitive, even foolish. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, right? But as an upcoming report from the Comms Lab will outline, there are good reasons why large agencies might want to explore this kind of thinking. It’s likely to be good for staff retention and recruitment. Millennials are looking for more than just a decent benefits package — they want purpose and direction from their employers. It’s part of a growing trend on the client side where brands like Nudie Jeans and Patagonia are increasingly vocal about their impact, both positive and negative. This is where the world is headed (I hope).
And finally, it’s a chance for visibility and prestige. These large agencies have some of the most creative and innovative people on the face of the earth. If they start thinking about new ways to frame this issue, the results are likely to be startling. Imagine the freedom and fun you could have if you no longer had to work to an NGO brief, but could really let rip on the greatest issue facing the world right now. If the Guardian can start its own climate campaign, why not your shop too? Bring the power of emotional storytelling to something that really matters. You could do people like me out of a job.
I’d be more than happy to see you try.