When campaign organisations put their climate change messages up in lights alongside commercial neon advertising the result is a bizarre dissonance that does nothing for their message but says a lot more about our collective confusion and denial.
Last week 10:10, the global campaign to reduce emissions by 10% this year, proudly announced that its name was up among the bright lights in Piccadilly Circus. The tweet promoting the sign said “in amongst it all, you really can see the glimmers of a movement building”.
Glimmers indeed. Watch carefully or you may miss it- yes 10:10 really is there, alternating with a gambling website and engulfed by the vastly greater signs of TDK, Sanyo and Sony.
Piccadilly Circus is not just a fancy illuminated sign, it is, and has always been, a totem pole of corporate advertising. To place a climate change message there implies that there is no conflict of interest between action on climate change and the growth economics of globalised corporations. Even if you accept this – and personally I don’t – is it not bizarre nonetheless to publicise a climate change campaign that has urged people to turn their televisions off standby and unplug their mobile phone charger on a flashing sign alongside the world’s largest electronics corporations? It would be like the National Cycle Network putting its logo on the side of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.
Much as I respect what 10:10 has achieved, I have come to expect their communications to be, shall we say, eccentric. 2 weeks ago they enthusiastically launched a promo movie that showed dissenters being blown apart with high explosive. See my last post.. But I do expect more coherence from the World Wide Fund for Nature and its large and experienced communications team. However the WWF is just as excited by the thought of being up in lights. In March this year it persuaded its partners Coca Cola to give over its prime Piccadilly Circus spot for an advert for its Earth Hour – a global call for people to turn out their lights in solidarity with the climate crisis.
Hold it there for a moment – an environmental organisation, teamed up with a global soft drinks manufacturer (reknowned for its dubious expansion tactics and links with obesity), takes out a huge illuminated sign to encourage people to save energy and turn off their lights.
WWF’s justification was that the sign would go out at 8.30 pm as part of the Earth Hour. If you turn a blind eye to the extremely mixed messaging you can also conveniently ignore the fact that it did not actually go off at all, but went a kind of bright grey colour like a laptop screen on the blink.Link…
It seems that environmentalists, like moths, are so dazzled by the bright lights that they lose all sense of where they are and what they are trying to say. And if Piccadilly Circus, a rather mediocre display, is so attractive to campaigners, Times Square drives us nuts.
In 2008 the Climate Group chose the middle of Times Square for the launch of its Together campaign- once again, a programme aimed at persuading people to adopt small changes in energy saving behaviour. The launch was a strange affair of celebrities, laptop information screens and potted plants- and above them all a huge LED sign with a pulsing orange circle logo. Link, go to June 2008 tab and click on ‘launch video’
Earth Day 2009 was launched when an illuminated ‘Earth Ball’ (sponsored by Philips Electrics) was dropped in Times Square. They came back for their 40th anniversary this year with “personal greetings from renowned leaders of the environmental movement” aired on screens around the square.
And even the admirable and usually right-on-message Bill McKibben, the founder of the grassroots 350.org movement, chose to launch the 2009 Climate Day of Action there under their huge illuminated arrow logo. Could anyone actually guess what the Blue Arrow or the Earth Ball or the Yellow Circle were advertising? Mobile phones? Soft drinks? Trainers? They all seem to mulch down to pretty much the same in the bold coloured big graphiced sans serif logo world.
It is not hard to see why environmental groups are so excited about having their name in lights. They clearly love the idea of being a player among the other global brands and having a foothold in an iconic and exciting location. Green groups are painfully aware of their stereotype as judgmental backward looking puritans, so they willingly embrace any image that portrays them as cool, exciting, forward looking and part of the modern consumer world. And, to be fair, when we are all trying so damned hard to get people engaged, can we really blame anyone who sees a chance to get some attention?
But my concern is not so much about the medium as the way that the adjacency of messages urging activist action and consumerist inaction contributes to our collective denial. Such jarring juxtapositions are now so common that we take them for granted. A dire scientific report on the impacts of flying will appear in a newspaper adjacent to a full page advert for cheap flights, or a website will have a banner for a competition to win a tropical holiday above a climate change report on the burning of the Amazon.
People would immediately observe, and probably protest, such associations around other topics where they already have a strong moral compass. Just imagine the complaints if fast food companies ran adverts in the middle of a documentary on childhood obesity. And on very sensitive topics people notice even minor and accidental associations. I recall a complaint against a Polaroid advert during a commercial break in the 1980’s mini-series Holocaust –it appeared, entirely by coincidence, just after SS officers have been flicking through photos of concentration camps.
Advertisers (and the advertising departments in the media) usually invest a lot of attention to make sure that adverts are put alongside copy and visuals that do not challenge their brand and put it in the most flattering context. In the case of climate change they clearly see no contradictions. If they think about it at all, and I doubt that they do, they probably reckon that the appeal of their product can overcome any adjacent warning about climate change. I suspect that they are right and that the climate message is subtly and subconsciously weakened in the mind of the viewer as a result (a postulate that I freely offer for a tasty social science research topic).
But surely, one would think, environmental campaigners would be alert to such conflicts and would actively avoid any contamination of their message. Most green groups have policies against taking funding from oil and aviation companies for exactly this reason. Some of the largest mainstream green groups work with corporations that contribute to climate change but usually do so under carefully controlled conditions where the partnership is well defined and the corporation is not allowed free reign to promote itself.
But all that falls apart in the glorious hypnotic world of flashing NEON.
Really, for me, the test is this: when someone looks at this footage in 2100, amidst the chaos of a dangerously overheated world, what will he or she make of it ? Will it seem like a valiant attempt to engage people? Or will it seem disturbing and incoherent?