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Wail, fail, whale.

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.

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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.

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AA

Environmentalism used to be all hair shirts and hippies, sitting on the edge of society.

In the playground, it was the well-meaning boy who smelt a bit. Or worse, the bossy up-tight girl who talked at you, not to you. In fact, even as it encroaches further and further on the mainstream, most people still think of environmentalism in these terms. And it is a big problem: there is nothing more off-putting than droning, one-dimensional worthiness.

To truly be welcomed into our lives, the green movement needs to develop a diversity of styles. Luckily, some more complex and challenging voices are starting to emerge: The Nag, fuelled in part by “hatred of pessimistic environmental activism”, tries to find new ways to change the world while “letting people be people”; Good magazine (“for people who give a damn”), aware of the perils of worthiness, balances in-depth coverage of serious issues with award-winning design.

This balancing act can be pushed further though, to the point where it creates a powerful ‘internal tension’ at the heart of a campaign or a brand. American Apparel have done just this, off-setting a pioneering welfare policy for their workers with their trademark sexually charged adverts and legal controversy. It is, I am convinced, what gives the clothier its unique cool.

And there are hints of AmAppy in the videos that Do The Green Thing produce, presenting their own sexed-up take on environmentalism:

These videos, more than anything else I have seen, recognise that if environmental organisations don’t want to sit on the fringes, some of them will have to learn how to live on the edge.

For those who are interested, the people at Do The Green Thing also recently wrote an impassioned plea for change within the advertising industry.

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