Climate Change Denial

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October 15, 2010


George Marshall @ 6:49 pm

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”.

Piccadilly Lights from Londonlime on Vimeo.

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 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?

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9 responses to “UP IN LIGHTS”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with your points George. Climate schizophrenia rules…OK?

  2. Annie says:

    My first thoughts: Climate activists and organizations are working so desperately hard to get the message across any way they can.

    and… the medium is the message. So if we put our message in this medium, then the medium annuls our message.

  3. Graham Game says:

    Spot on George. It’s incredible that some of us go to great lengths to explore the psychology behind environmental campaigns, & apply it to our work, while others – who should know better, carry on business as usual. 10:10 have not only lost the plot, they are taking us all down with them!!
    When will some of their big NGO supporters see the light & pull the plug? (puns intended).

  4. Gary Jones says:

    How naive and puritanical can you be?

    If you got approached by the people at Piccadilly Lights, Times Square or any other forum for getting your message across and asked if you would like to advertise here for free – would you turn it down?

    For a man whose book I have read (and respected) you present a painfully simplistic view of how to get that message across. I almost welcome having a newspaper report of the dangers of climate change next to an advertisement for flying because I hope the more intelligent people reading will start to realise the problems.

    We don’t have 40 to 50 years to defeat capatalism and bring about a new world order, we must work within the system we have to exact change now, reduce carbon now.

    When the person looking back from 2100 looks at this, I hope he will see at least some people were actually trying all avenues to reach out to people and get them to listen. If you keep your message with green or ‘pure and unsullied’ publications you will only ever preach to the converted and your message will not get heard fast enough and by enough people.

    Its time to realise that this is not a theoretical war for puritans its a bloody fistfight and you have to take every opportunity you can to land a blow.

    [It’s a fair point Gary- we do need to find lots of ways of engaging new people and believe me when I say that personally I love the bright lights. But I also have to say that if I was ever offered a spot in these places I would only to use it in a way that challenged the context and the advertising around it, whereas I feel that these examples pay them homage and are lost as a result. But all debate is welcome on this post (providing, as ever, that it recognises that climate actually is a problem to address]

  5. ozbizbozzle says:

    All arguments have their merit in my view. I would like to add that we are all living meantime under this capitalist worldview. I have tried living outside of it and i got crushed. What can we do pragmatically that is beyond your criticism above? I am not in any way trying to be adversarial because this is what we have all been taught.We are all products of our deep rooted comfort zones. Yes Im angry, yes I’m disappointed but first we need to look more closely as to why we are the way we are.
    Why am I writing this? Context, context context!

  6. David Hirst says:

    Well put. It is one of many contradictions arising from capitalism that we see every day, and manage to ignore. Clearly, when they exist in our own lives, we really do have to learn to ignore them, so operate a sort of induced schizophrenia. No doubt this teaches us blindness towards crass contradictions in political and economic (or corporate) lives. As one eminent economist put it to me “Environmental NGOs also seek rent”.

  7. I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. I think the focus of the environmental movement should just GET AWAY from the whole climate change issue altogether. There are plenty of other reasons to: stop polluting the oceans, deforesting, and poisoning the air; switch to renewables. Practically the entire ecological movement has been hijacked by this one issue. You might say – well it’s THE most important issue, and you would be right, but the “branding” of it has all gone horribly wrong and plays straight into the hands of people who just are looking for any excuse not to change their lifestyle or get politically engaged. I avoid all arguments about climate change and when I meet a denier I try instead to just get them to look at specific horrible things going on environmentally; the red sludge of Budapest or whatever is happening at the moment. These kinds of concrete incidents are much harder for people to slither away from confronting and they cannot lead you into a pseudo-scientific argument that neither person is likely to be well-informed enough to truly win. 10:10’s cock up is unfathomably awful and so unbelievably terrible that it almost makes me suspect the involvement of counter-intelligence forces! But it’s sadly just one example of the wrong road the whole movement has gone down in my opinion. Everything is negative and based on fear, which is exactly how the dominant paradigm operates. The suggestions of actions were also extraordinarily lame. Please everyone, if the earth is to be “saved”, the current climate change focus of the eco-movement is one of the things it will have to be saved from!

  8. Ross Maxwell says:

    I have to agree with the points Gary made above, so many people here appear to have issues with the fact that the ad appeared along side the likes of Coke and McDonalds, yet the majority that has to be reached love their fizzy drinks and cheeseburgers and have no idea this blog exists. There seems to be far too much preaching to the concerned converted while the blissfully ignorant are gazing up at the pretty lights. It may feel a bit like sleeping with the enemy but you have to go them sometimes you can’t expect them to come to you, they won’t even know where to find you half the time.

  9. Scanner says:

    Well, I appreciate the thought that the two messages are in conflict, but in practical terms, just how much electricity does a neon sign actually use? And are these actually neon signs? A lot of neon signage has now been replaced by high efficiency LED equivalents.
    Anyoe know what the situation in Piccadilly is?

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