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The above ‘blue marble’ photograph, taken on December 7th 1972 from Apollo 17, is often said to have subtly, but fundamentally changed the way we view our relationship with the world. According to Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies at Stanford, “…it brought home to people that the earth is not vast, that it’s actually quite small in the universe… It’s something that everybody understood intellectually, I think more smart people understood that intellectually before but what it brought was an emotional understanding of that. You could see that it was a small and potentially fragile water planet.”

 Since 1972, the world has only become smaller, but we still struggle to ‘emotionally understand’ events on the other side of the globe and to comprehend the scale of far-off facts and figures. Yet in recent years, infographics– the visual representation of information, data or knowledge – has become something of a religion for geeks everywhere. Sites like Information Aesthetics seep with examples of ‘just maths’ made beautiful, often aimed at helping us to better understand the world around us by overcoming our fears and our biases.

One of the primary tools of an information aesthete is of course the map: there is no better way of portraying context; of representing a part and its relation to the whole. In fact, I am convinced that there is something inherently fascinating about maps, something irresistible. And globes – well, they have their own gravitational pull. Billy Connelly once said ‘Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosey, doesn’t try it on’ and to that I would add ‘Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a globe, doesn’t spin it.’

Which brings me to Google Earth. I have written before about the potency of the planet-spinning application, but its exact appeal is hard to pin down: the ‘blue marble’ effect, the allure of maps, and the interactivity of it all (something akin to what Russell Davies calls ‘action from a distance’) all seem to add up to a perfect storm. For me, anyway.

And so I was really happy to learn that, in the run-up to Copenhagen, Google Earth is to be used as a tool to communicate the effects of climate change: “In collaboration with the Danish government and others, we are launching a series of Google Earth layers and tours to allow you to explore the potential impacts of climate change on our planet and the solutions for managing it.” I can’t think of a better way to try and generate some of that elusive ‘emotional understanding.’

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man_with_no_name

I have blathered before about the dual importance of pursuing transparency from companies and communicating any observations clearly and creatively. The people at Greenpeace, I said, seem to work with this principle at the top of their minds. Recently though, I have been learning about the murkiest, downright-dirtiest tactics used to influence opinion by so-called ‘special interests.’

One of the most stomach-turning practices has been dubbed ‘astroturfing’ and involves the artificial simulation of grass-roots support. This name, already too clever by half, feels particularly relevant to environmental concerns.

Typical examples are Shell and BP employees being told to secretly turn out for mass rallies in favour of big oil, and the deceitful use of stock-photos by the Federation for American Coal and Energy security. Yet astroturfing is not restricted to America or the oil industry: in the UK, the National Hydration Council is funded by three big bottled water companies and seeks to attack tap water through ‘unattributable briefings’ to the press.

And if all this didn’t seem murky enough already, consider this article by Ben Goldacre about the organic food industry, a darling of the middle-classes. Goldacre explicitly relates the communication policy of the Soil Association with that of other lobbying groups – they can twist facts and withold information as well as anybody. For him, chosing organic may make people feel good about themselves, but it is no solution: But just as we do not solve the problems of deceitfulness in the pharmaceutical industry by buying homeopathic sugar pills, so we may not resolve the undoubted problems of unchecked capitalism in industrial food production by giving money to the £2bn industry represented by the Soil Association.”

 Finally, not only are some organisations deliberately misrepresenting the origin of a message, but they are also consciously distorting the style and execution of their work in order to trick the public. Indeed, this is exactly what the (oil-funded) makers of this Al Gore’s Penguin Army’ clip did in order to give the impression that it was an amateur job – more astroturfing. As a point of interest, this is an entirely different phenomenon to that which seems to have affected both the BNP in their party political broadcasts and this truly tragic (oil-funded) campaign in the US. Here, the videos are presumably ugly because no one with any aesthetic sensitivity would go near them – a thought that could act as a handy rule of thumb.

Yet aside from judging content on its artistic credentials, ordinary folk can’t be expected to navigate through the fog; to see the difference between the good and the bad. Who can we believe? If some organisations are willing to go to such extraordinary lengths to fool people, we must ask the question: should traditional broadcast-style communication be deemed inherently untrustworthy? Is the only satisfactory goal complete openness,  traceability, accountability? Transparency, after all, is what you need when you don’t know who to trust.

I would certainly wager that the biggest plaudits, and opportunities, exist for those big companies that are willing to ‘grasp the nettle’ now. For example, in the US John Mackey, the CEO of Wholefoods, recently went into the lions den to address an audience of loyal supporters of Michael Pollan, an author who had criticised Wholefoods heavily in his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Yet just by directly engaging in honest debate, the feeling was that ‘Mackey pulled off a brilliant PR move’, despite Pollan commenting ‘It was absolutely clear that no public-relations firm had a hand in your presentation’.

In the UK I have been fascinated by the ‘You ask, they answer’ column in The Guardian for a while. It seems to me to be ahead of its time: an early example of how companies may engage with consumers in the future. When a representative of a firm puts themselves forward, most readers’ questions are emotionally charged, barbed and leading, if they are questions at all. Yet I suspect the average, casual reader leaves with a similar impression to Charles Surface, who comments: ‘…you have a corporate here that has a detailed plan for improving its environmental impact, published it, and is implementing it. Moreover, they actively want you to hold it accountable and have sent someone to talk. You might stop puffing your own environmental credentials up for long enough to realise what a massively encouraging development this is.’

Of course, some companies will not be able to stand up to such scrutiny. Neal’s Yard Remedies, for example, fled the ‘You ask, they answer’ forum when the questions people wanted answering turned out to be about the efficacy claims of their homeopathic products, rather than their flash new environmental policy. But then perhaps Paul Sheldon of Natural Capitalism Solutions is right when he says ‘Hypocrisy is the first step towards meaningful change.’ All companies can talk the talk, but only a few will be able to walk the walk. To demonstrate consistent integrity. To be like  The Man With No Name.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Pulp Sunday.

capitalismproblem

If charity shops (or thrift stores, as they are known over here) were to stock words as well as clothes, you might expect to find ‘sustainable development’ slumped alongside all the plaid shirts and Levi’s jeans. After all, words are like clothes: they can become tired and lose shape with over-use.

Indeed, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Geoffrey Palmer has pointed out the economic oxymoron contained within ‘sustainable development’, one that we do not usually address in everyday use. In the recent Economist debate ‘This house believes sustainable development is unsustainable’, the fact that the phrase itself has lost its precision was central to the argument of David Victor, the proposer: ‘Sustainable development is a beautiful-sounding idea that has become intellectually bankrupt and should be abandoned’. In any event, while the debate itself was lively and the points were well made, you never got the impression the two sides were talking about the same thing.

It strikes me that, while ‘sustainable development’ is a concept we are becoming increasingly used to hearing, it is one that can be difficult to communicate effectively. Fortunately, the moderator of the debate, Geoff Carr, managed to look beyond this vagary in his closing remarks, getting to what he thought was the heart of the matter: ‘This argument is the one between those who think that development is an indefinite process in which people are constantly striving to get ahead, but which can, indeed, be sustained indefinitely, and those who see an end to it all, a nirvana of happiness in which people will perceive that they have enough, have had enough of striving and will be content with their lots. We shall see.’

Yet to my mind this raises another problem with ‘sustainable development’ as a masthead: it is too easily dismissed as the mantra of the dippy and the idealistic. Even Carr can’t resist a dig when he talks of ‘a nirvana of happiness’.

I think though, that in his book Enough, John Naish hits upon a more powerful and potentially unifying frame for the whole thing. His central argument is that our modern lives are being stretched in too many directions, that we would all do well to break free, to shout ‘Enough!’, ‘Basta!’, ‘Ca Suffit!’

Of course there is nothing new about any of this. Way back in 1848, J.S.Mill wroteI confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.’ And John Maynard Keynes, the economist du jour, predicted that such an escape was possible within three generations in his 1932 essay ‘On the economic possibilities for our grandchildren’: ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who teach us to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well.’

I think it is fair to say that on this occasion, optimism got the better of Keynes. Intuition tells us that Naish is right: our predicament has only got worse. In fact, I suspect that most people today would subscribe to the general sentiment of his book, if not all the detail. Perhaps ‘breaking out’ is a more engaging way to talk about the pursuit of sustainability?

It certainly seems to be an idea that is generating its own momentum. For example, the economist Umair Haque believes there is a generational aspect to it all – that the maturing ‘generation M’ are set to reject many existing aspirations. He recently addressed ‘The Old People Who Run the World’ with a manifesto: ‘You wanted growth — faster. We want to slow down — so we can become better…  … You wanted to biggie size life: McMansions, Hummers, and McFood. We want to humanize life.’ Now this is all hyperbolic (and very, well, American), but it is a sign that such ‘enoughist’ ideas may be infiltrating new areas of society and popping up in unexpected places. Like cereals.

If one goal of sustainable development is to encourage people to ‘live within their means’, then I think the message might benefit from a shift in emphasis. Despite the fact that the house voted that ‘sustainable development’ was not unsustainable, I suspect most people would struggle to relate the term to their daily lives. ‘Enough’ on the other hand, well, that feels richer to me.

After all, when I pop into the neighbourhood thrift store, I think it is less about embracing sustainability and more about being intimidated and bored by the ‘traditional’ high street. It is more about opting-out than opting-in.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from Princess Valium on Flickr. These posters hung on most street corners when I arrived in New York two weeks ago.

whale

Several socially-minded adverts have attracted headlines recently because of their impact, their shock-factor. We have seen the Asian Tsunami compared, in airplanes, to 9-11, and have been told that contracting Aids is really just like shagging Hitler. Now, both of these examples may well be crude/thoughtless/inexcusable, but you can see how they have come to exist.

Generally speaking ‘impact’ is a weak, but not uncommon way of measuring the performance of a piece of marketing. Surprise is good, right? Moreover, adverts for ‘good causes’ have always been given more license to shock than conventional ads: the received wisdom is that if it saves people/animals/trees then it can’t be a bad thing.  And so, around the world people my age have been raised on a visual diet of heart-stopping clips and head-turning posters, all well-meaning (and there are shed-loads of examples here).  Familiar as we are with such things, perhaps it is not surprising that the people behind these campaigns feel they have to work ever harder to shock us. Take this ultra-realistic Welsh video for example. It has been lauded for its force and passed around social networks, but when you watch it, it is hard to imagine there is much further to go.

The key difference between the earlier ads and this clip, of course, is that they generated their shock from an external source, from something tangential to the issue that they set out to address. That is why they were derided, whilst it was applauded. It seems we do not mind being shaken, so long as the cause is directly related to the cause: it is ok to put images of toxic lungs on packets of cigarettes, but not other, similarly repulsive images. Like pooh.

But if plain, old blood and guts does not cut the mustard anymore, and these organisations cannot just import a taboo topic, how else can they get our attention?

Well, the truth is that there are plenty of ways to do so, but they may just require a bit of skill or ingenuity (often sadly lacking at an ad agency, especially one that is working for free). Here are three decent routes, to finish:

Shock from simplicity of execution – We have long known that realism is often not the best way to convey strength of emotion. Consider the dynamic text in this chilling video from the Christian Right in America, or in this animated version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance.

Shock from fooling the audience – For many of us, there is nothing more shocking than being caught out or shown up, as is the case with this pair of adverts from Transport for London.

Shock from focusing on the positive – This road safety advert from Atlanta and this web application from the WDCS both cleverly draw attention to the value of that-which-we-could-lose, rather than the loss itself. Being reminded of those things we take for granted can often be a shock in itself.

kriss akabusi 2 350 pixels

When it comes to ‘doing our bit’ to deflect climate-change, changing light bulbs and conserving water are two of the ‘small actions’ that we hear most about and both have been in the news recently.

Last week the EU moved to phase out traditional incandescent bulbs (the gold-standard of illumination for more than a century’), by banning retailers from replenishing their stocks. The logic is that, while the emissions eliminated may well be minor, inefficient light-bulbs are a ‘low hanging fruit’ and banning them is a tangible way of reducing energy consumption; a first step that will engage people and build momentum for the future. (Of course, a flat ban has resulted in much right-wing jabbering, but also genuine confusion about the relative merits of the alternative compact flourescent bulbs. For what it is worth, More or Less, the statistics show on Radio 4, conducted an analysis of the pros and cons and ruled that in the long-term CFL’s are indeed significantly cheaper and more energy efficient.)

Similar momentum-building logic surely lies behind the new ‘Shower Power’ campaign in the UK (fronted, alarmingly, by Kriss Akabusi) and the more-intentionally-humorous rallying call that urges Brazilians to multitask and wee in the shower. But here we are right to ask: does drawing attention to one small facet necessarily result in greater overall engagement? Is impactful the same as effective? Indeed, in a recent paper, the American Psychological Association wrote ‘evidence is inconclusive at best about whether engaging in one type of environmentally friendly behaviour predisposes one to engage in other types of environmentally friendly behaviour.’

It seems to me that when we focus on these ‘small actions’, we tread a fine line: on the one hand, they are a great way of making complex issues seem tangible and achievable, of achieving unity and of generating energy; but on the other hand, they risk trivialising difficult problems and distorting the way we perceive our impact as a whole. The current 10:10 campaign is particularly interesting because it acknowledge this trade-off (‘The beauty of 10:10 is that it’s both achievable and meaningful), and it is notable that both the cabinet and the shadow cabinet have signed up with relatively little bickering. We have recently learnt that ‘Gordon Brown will be turning the heating down in Downing Street; Lord Mandelson plans to cycle more; Oliver Letwin is installing solar water heating and Nick Clegg is considering eating less meat.’

And yet that just sounds like trite and petty politicking, doesn’t it?

Perhaps one problem is that too often the dialogue around these ‘small actions’ neglects to mention how difficult they can actually be, in real life. Perhaps it would be better if Peter told us that he has been cycling, apart from on Thursday when he couldn’t bring himself to go out in the rain, or if Nick confessed that  last night he regressed and had a Big Mac on the way home. At least then we would know that they were actually trying. And don’t forget, to make people try is the most important thing here. If these campaigns are actually about generating momentum, then the real goal is to create genuine engagement, rather than self-satisfaction.

In justifying difficulty in poetry, a friend Josh recently wrote ‘The world becomes intelligible to us – that is to say, we can differentiate between different aspects of its existence – by virtue of the fact that it resists our activities in various ways.’ Not only are we suspicious of choices that are presented in too simple a fashion, but we only actually learn when we struggle.

And so perhaps there is no need to gloss over the struggle we have adapting to change and overcoming inertia. Perhaps, when trying to get people to ‘do their bit’, the underlying message needs to be about effort: a bit less ‘this is easy and definitely the right thing to do’, and a bit more ‘this can be frustrating and tough as well as satisfying and fun.’  Otherwise, pissing in the shower could also mean pissing into the wind.

magpie

In his book Enough, John Naish begins the chapter on ‘stuff’ by quoting Oscar Wilde: ‘There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.’

The passage refers to hedonic adaptation: the process by which we constantly strive for the next shiny object, only to be immediately disappointed when we acquire it. Naish attempts to trace this reflex back, past Josiah Wedgwood and the advent of ‘instant obsolescence’, to Neolithic hand-axes. We have long been a ‘species that is uniquely wired, compelled, hormonally drugged and scared into wanting things’, he tells us, but in recent times our society has become much better at giving us what we want.

On this subject, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides the meatiest snippets: ‘Our ancestors lived with far greater external constraints and had far fewer opportunities. The paramount importance of self-restraint has only now arisen in its pressing entirety before mankind.’ And so on the cover of Enough, Naish goes on to cry, somewhat less eloquently, ‘It’s time to evolve again: for our sake and the Earth’s.’ To his credit though, Naish does not put all his eggs in the evolution of a greater, nu-puritan consciousness (it is a slow process, I heard), but acknowledges that there are other levers to pull. I will focus on two which are relevant to marketing.

Things that last

In the self-help, five-step-style section of his book, Naish urges us ‘to be more materialistic’, to ‘care for our material things, rather than just using and discarding them,’ to appreciate their value. In fact, it is quite common advice these days: ‘if you must buy something, buy something slightly more expensive than you are comfortable with, and cherish it for longer’, we are told.

In marketing terms, while this message used to always come with a dollop of smug exclusivity (‘You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.’), it is now the domain of humble, almost-highstreet Howies.  If such promises are ever going to win over the Primani army though, it is important that they are able to continue to provide and justify their worth. Perhaps this is what Rory Sutherland meant when he said ‘intangible value is probably the most sustainable form you can create’.

Things we use, but don’t own

When you stretch this concept further though, it is clear that you need a completely different form of transaction in order to break the old hedonic cycle of ‘want, buy, be disappointed’. One possible solution is a shift towards a rental, or membership based model. Think Lovefilm rather than Zavvi, and Zipcar rather than a dealership. Generally speaking, the advantage of these models is twofold: firstly, goods can be shared, so fewer have to be made in the first place (each Zipcar takes 15-20 household cars off the road); and secondly,  it becomes in the interest of the manufacturer to make stuff that doesn’t need to be replaced (no more ‘built-in obsolescence’, Arthur).

These ideas are very much in vogue, but they are not new: in 1999 Electolux piloted a pay-per-use rental scheme for washing machines in Sweden, but it failed due to lack of interest. According to Worldchanging ‘The program was met with a decisive yawn by consumers, who apparently didn’t want to change the way they paid for doing the laundry. The company… hopes to reintroduce it someday with better success.’ It seems that there is a need to familiarise people with these ideas and to stimulate demand, to beat a path to their door.

The picture at the top is borrowed, with thanks, from *_*_*_*_*_* on flickr.

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//Following on from the previous post.//

To many people the very idea of a marketer calling for transparency may seem a little strange, but consider the following:

One of the first things you learn in an agency is the benefit of a tight brief, of clearly defining the problem on which you work. I imagine the same is true for any form of ‘witty problem-solving’ (a Bullmorism), from design to cruciverbalism: it is the very parameters and boundaries that actually create the best solutions.

In practice, marketers are mercenary bastards, to be sure. But you can also be sure that few (decent ones) would derive much satisfaction from helping EDF ape Ecotricity so shamelessly as this.

Parameters can come in many forms, from budget to scope to regulation (of which there should be more) to personal standards to just-knowing-you-would-be-found-out. Most marketers I know hope that the net tightens quickly on Greenwashing: it might make them work harder, but it would also make their work better.

The environmental marketing firm Terrachoice produce a guide to the ‘seven sins of greenwashing’ here. It is well worth reading. The picture at the top is one of theirs too.