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‘No pressure’: how should environmental messages be communicated?

October 5, 2010

Last Friday’s launch and rapid withdrawal of a high profile climate change campaign video illustrates the pitfalls and tensions in environmental communication.  The 3 minute video, directed by Richard Curtis (director of Love Actually, Four Weddings and Funeral) aimed to bring climate change “back into the headlines whilst making people laugh”.  Unfortunately, the joke – blowing up schoolchildren, the footballer David Ginola and actress Gillian Anderson for not agreeing to act to reduce their emissions after being told ‘no pressure’ – spectacularly backfired.

Classroom scene from the controversial 10:10 video. Image: YouTube

The imagery chimes with contemporary themes of terrorism, war and militant fundamentalism, and if blog traffic is anything to go on the 10:10 campaign is being accused of being either very naïve (see here, here or here to begin with) or eco-fascist.

Gillian Anderson in the 10:10 video. Image: 10:10

The video (and subsequent reaction) illustrates contemporary debates on ways to communicate environmental issues and the underlying science.  Broadly, these revolve around notions of fear/crisis-based vs. vision-based messaging.

Fear or crisis-based messages commonly aim to shock viewers into action through presenting graphic or disaster-strewn representations of the need for rapid environmental action.  For example, Conservation International have used Harrison Ford’s chest hair to highlight deforestation; the UK government Act on CO2 campaign pictured a doomsday twist on a child’s bedtime story;  and anti-aviation pressure group Plane Stupid depicted polar bears falling out of the sky to highlight CO2 emissions from aircraft.  The 10: 10 video falls into this category, ironically posing the phrase ‘no pressure’ whilst explicitly (admittedly in a slapstick fashion) blowing up anyone who doesn’t comply by making pledges to lower their carbon emissions.

A vision-based approach tends to be more subtle, attempting to align a vision for environmental action with the audience’s values, beliefs and aspirations.  For example, WWF used the pride and adulation fans devote to Benfica football club to highlight the plight of an endangered eagle.  This process (often termed ‘framing’) treads a fine line between presenting an easily relatable (and often hopeful) message without watering-down the underlying science or lapsing into political ‘spin’.

We have debated the merits of the two approaches in media workshops at Oxford for the last 4-5 years, and one insight is that messages of impending crisis attract the attention of politicians and policy makers but turn off the general public.  Instead, most people are thought to respond most positively to environmental messages of hope (two academic papers from Oxford on this subject can be found here and here).

BioFresh decided on vision-based, hopeful messaging – see for example the Cabinet of Freshwater Curiosities – but is this the best approach to take?  Whilst we wouldn’t go so far as blowing people up, should we be more vocal and sensationalist on the risk to human well-being that recent evidence on decline in African freshwater biodiversity or the extinction threat faced by many species of sturgeon might indicate?  Are crisis-based messages more effective at communicating environmental issues? Or are you tired of sensationalist, ‘doom and gloom’ environmentalism and so more receptive to a constructive, hopeful, vision-based alternative?

14 Comments leave one →
  1. frank verismo permalink
    October 5, 2010 17:51

    “Are crisis-based messages more effective at communicating environmental issues? Or are you tired of sensationalist, ‘doom and gloom’ environmentalism and so more receptive to a constructive, hopeful, vision-based alternative?”

    To be honest, I’m incredibly tired of both forms of propaganda.

    I got rid of my tv several years ago. This only served to further expose the psychological techniques at play, on those now rare occasions when I see tv campaigns.

    I’m particularly nauseated by blatant attempts to brainwash children – on any issue. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find this practice morally repellent.

    Perhaps it’s time for an entirely new approach?

    • October 6, 2010 09:04

      Frank,
      Thanks for your comment. Is it the underlying message, or the means of communcation that you take issue with? How could we start to think about new approaches to take?

  2. October 6, 2010 09:27

    Well articulated.

    In another life, I was an ad-man.

    Come award time, it used to frustrate that the negative and/or shocking executions won big time.

    What was seldom picked upon upon was how these undoubted impactful messages served the overall strategy being espoused… presuming them to have some positive intent.

    Grabbing attention is easy. Doing it in a way to engage and persuade is much less so.

    We share a vision of end benefit-driven action by inspiration and example.

    It may not always hit headlines, but when it works it is much more satisfying.

    • October 6, 2010 10:06

      Thanks. You make a good point – crisis-based messages may attract attention, but how far they manage to engage people into taking positive environmental action is certainly open to debate. Have you come across any particularly engaging or creative methods of environmental messaging that you think have been more successful?

      • October 6, 2010 10:26

        In a long ad, and latterly enviro, career… few sadly.

        Not strictly enviro, but the only one that springs to mind is (Oxfam’s? That’s a bit telling, I guess if not) effective use of the phrase ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day..’

        That, in one neat summary, told me the problem, the solution, and how my money or time could be used.

        Vague ‘do this, or else, er, something bad’ headless chicken efforts tend to be selective in the accuracy of the first, downright vague on the second, and as to the third, often show me how money better used on doing good can be squandered on luvvies jetting around the planet gaining accolades for spreading alarm in high profile ways.

  3. October 6, 2010 15:18

    I figure this debacle shows up a couple of fault lines in the strategy. First, you cant trust the ad industry and assorted media luvvies to make the environmental case – their first love is consumerism. Secondly the catastrophic message is diminshed by putting it in an advert trying to persuade us to do the right thing. This is fairly obvious when one makes a critical evaluation of ‘Act on Co2’. If we are looking at a catastrophe people expect a government response. And if that response is just an ad campaign then some wil conclude it can’t much of a catastrophe . The moral argument looks bigger than the moral imperative , hence many will see the ads and conclude it’s just a conscience thing.
    In short the Act on CO2 campaign is the government’s way of looking like they are doing something .

    • October 6, 2010 17:35

      I regret that, while ActOnCO2 never matched No Pressure for gross out foot-shooting, it has had its moments too. Recall Bedtime Story? Went down a storm, even with Ed Miliband rushing about ‘explaining what it meant’. One ironic result was the Science Museum Climate Exhibit delivered a public poll in total reverse to that expected, resulting in it needing (doubtless expensive) rebranding. Current messengers seem not to be serving the messages well at all.

      What I was equally interested in was the justification of a £6M production/media spend on this, which could have been much better invested elsewhere.

      To date, I have had no reply from any quango or in government I have so requested. That money has, literally, ‘gone up in smoke’.

      • October 10, 2010 18:31

        They aren’t justifying the spend because the real purpose of the campaign is to disguise government complacency. We all know that collective action is the only thing that will get us out of the hole. But ads appealing to our sense of virtue suggest the opposite and downplay the problem. The worst polluters have no sense of virtue. The core of our argument is that ‘green’ values should be shared values, but ads presenting them as an option suggest the climate crisis is not about shared values. They do more harm than good, IMHO.

  4. October 12, 2010 08:40

    Hi BFB, There is a maxim in advertising “The Medium is the Message”. It means that your audience isn’t paying too much attention to the minutiae of what you are saying, they are after all watching the tv for the programmes not the ads. We tend to forget that there is a wealth of ideas competing against us. Not all as directly as climate change denial, but since every product has a carbon footprint people’s consumerist habits are likely to reinforce their values. All this adds up to a mammoth task. The gist of what I am saying is that we have to challenge some core assumptions and we are not going to do that with advertising . Advertising is fine if you want to sell a product but to sell a new behavioural norm it sucks . A new behavioural norm has to be seen to be strong enough to stand up for itself. Ad agencies know that it’s far more effective to gently nudge people in the direction you want them to go rather than coming on all shouty. That way people may actually believe they have arrived at the decision the advertiser wanted , by their own free will, and are more likely ( with a bit of luck ) to continue to think that way.

    The thinking that I’m coming round to is that if the message is catastrophic (in AGW’s case probably) and the action needs to be collective (in AGW’s case certainly) then it seems daft to me to appeal to the individual to voluntarily and unilaterally behave in a way to avert the catastrophe. That is not a call to action it’s a demand on one’s conscience, and amongst other things it amplifies uncertainties. Maybe a schematic would help. I note that Monbiot is praising ‘Common Cause’ too now, must get on and read it.

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