Jul 30 2008
This morning I saw a circus training hottie wearing a tight black T-shirt with BIODIESEL written on it in silver bling sequins. This, I thought, is how you combat global warming.
Several friends have written to me about my piece on Gore’s Sustainable Electricity Challenge, trying to answer the question of how you make climate change mitigation sexy. One person argued that it’s all about associations. When people think of oil they need to think of black goo, the agony of war, evildoers and open sores. When they think of sustainability they should imagine pretty young people, green trees, crystal waterfalls and shining futures. This idea of associations is at the core of classic marketing and public relations techniques. Hence, the Biodiesel Hottie.
I mentioned this to a friend and he instantly translated the central meaning: “preventing the collapse of civilization gives me a boner!”
Well, yes. That is sort of what a hot body in biodiesel bling says. From this ridiculousness he argued that real social change had to include deep education at the primary and secondary school level. I agree completely — but we still need marketing, because, near as I can tell, people don’t actually base the vast majority of their opinions on critical thinking. This should not be shocking.
The argument against a clever, targeted public relations campaign to instill a lust for the Right Thing — sustainability — is that marketing sells image, not substance. Education makes people smarter, marketing makes them stupider, and so it’s entirely possible for people to “buy into” the image of sustainability without actually making any difference. We could all be walking around wearing our BIODIESEL baby-Ts, our fair-trade hemp jeans, listening to some fresh new update of Midnight Oil’s classic enviro-hit Beds Are Burning on our recylable greenPods and all the while continuing to drive our fossil-fuel cars to work. (And to live shows, of course.)
Put another way, we don’t want consumers, we want responsible citizens.
And yet, our world is heavily mediated by the messages we receive, because there’s simply too much world for us to figure it all out ourselves. Marketing sustainability is about more than getting 14 year old girls in Burbank to say things like, “oh my god! Carbon emissions are so disgusting!” It is about that, but it’s also about those who consider themselves generally awake, because even intelligent, caring, and otherwise conscious people can’t do an in-depth study of everything.
Our internal worlds are shaped by a mad swarm of “background” attitudes that we acquired without consciously choosing them. Here in California, smoking is generally considered just as gross as global warming. But why? Thirty years ago, it was awfully cool. Did the general public start reading the oncology, cardiology, and epidemiology journals and discover that (oh my god!) cigarettes are actually bad for your health? Of course not. Instead there was a massive public relations campaign to shape our perceptions. Only we called it a “public health” campaign, because no one likes to be told what to think.
This is about cultural context. This is about culture. This is about those associations I mentioned. Education and science and actual, you know, facts are critical, but the symbols we use in setting up the background assumptions of our society are important too. And we badly need new ones. For example I’m pretty sure that “eco-” has to go. “Eco-” has lost it’s original meaning of “ecological.” Now it sort of means “crappier than before” (eco-detergents like vinegar that don’t clean very well) or “inconvenient” (eco-friendly reusable bags that you always forget to bring to the store), or it might mean nothing at all, having become merely a market-speak word like “premium.” I bet it also invokes “hippie ” for a lot of people, and whatever that movement’s lasting cultural influence may have been, for many, many Americans today “hippies” are too closely associated with unshaven deadbeats, scratchy natural fibers, and a weird a-scientific love of hemp
Marketing is not a dark art. It’s just often used for dark things. If we’re serious about changing the way that that those who have not thought closely about sustainability think about sustainability — this would be almost everyone — then we have to understand what tools are available to shape perceptions. Oil has to be gross, sustainable energy has to be hot. Sure, we also need people to know why oil is gross, but that’s not enough.