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Selling climate change

The public cares about the environment – but does very little about it. What’s going wrong? Jon Miller, a man who sells Coca Cola to China, says it’s all in the message: forget polar bears - think house prices.

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In terms of fundraising, the main Western environmental groups have kept pace with increasingly sophisticated marketing techniques. In terms of campaigning, however, we are stuck in a 1970s world of slogans, stunts, posters, placards and banners. There is little understanding of the audience’s frame of mind, and no really tangible communications objectives. The green movement in Europe has become effective only at talking to itself.

This may sound a little harsh. After all, there has been a steadily growing media interest in climate change. That’s true, but too easy a measure. Awareness of climate change isn’t the objective: people may know and still do nothing. So what should we do differently? I have three suggestions.

1. Don’t debate the science

Everybody knows that greens love getting into a good debate. It’s not surprising – there’s a powerful scientific, moral and commonsense case to be made for taking action. Unfortunately, those with a vested interest in doing nothing are too shrewd. In the United States especially, they have successfully entangled environmental change campaigners in detailed debates about the validity of the science.
It’s a simple strategy: the likes of Exxon throw money at some financially compliant scientists, who produce a report with the appearance of credibility and objectivity. The greens, of course, leap to an enthusiastic defense of their case - and the trap is sprung: the public tunes out (too boring), the media downgrade the story (too complex) and the politicians have the greatest excuse for doing nothing (let’s wait until the science is clear).
It’s entirely right to set out the case, of course - but the time has come to have confidence in the scientific consensus around climate change, and to stop debating the science. We urgently need to move the conversation from “is it really happening?” to “what do we do about it?”

2. Stop talking about the environment

Buried around page seven of your newspaper, you might find the occasional story about climate change, along the lines of “Global warming: bad news for polar bears”. Personally, I find this little short of infuriating: it’s counter-productive, yet this kind of story forms the bulk of green communications on climate change.

So what’s the problem? After all, people do care about the environment, don’t they? Indeed, there are plenty of surveys which report that as many as 92% of people care about the environment. Unfortunately, this means very little: ask anyone if they care about the environment, and they’re unlikely to say no. Environmentalists find it difficult to accept that most people simply don’t care about the environment as much as they do.

The problem is this: the steady stream of stories about polar bears and the like has a negative effect: it causes people to think of climate change as a purely environmental issue. Of course, it isn’t: climate change presents serious economic, political and health risks.

Communications around climate change should focus on non-environmental impacts. Let’s face it, there are plenty to choose from: widespread crop failures, outbreaks of disease, the threat of conflict over water, and the increased likelihood of tsunami-like disasters in places like Bangladesh, to name a few.

But here again we need to be careful. If the scale of the impacts we describe is too overwhelming, people will disengage: it seems too big, too uncontrollable, like the threat of sudden annihilation by a giant rogue asteroid. Also, if the impacts are too remote – distant famines, for example – people file it mentally under good causes.

Climate change is more than a “good cause”. If we want people to respond emotionally, practically and urgently to climate change, then we need to present impacts that are both tangible and relevant to their lives. In the UK, we might think of this as “the Daily Mail strategy”: link every story to readers’ material wellbeing. So, we move from “climate change is bad news for polar bears” to “climate change may affect your house prices”.

Some may describe this as cynical. In advertising, we think of it as understanding your target audience. Of course, we would all like to believe in the better nature of our own species – but can we afford to rely on an appeal to people’s altruism? After all, we all know where charity begins.

The same logic applies to both consumers at large and the business community. We must move climate change out of the Corporate Social Responsibility box and into the CEO’s in-tray. We need to present this as a serious risk to business as usual: smart, responsible business leaders are taking climate change seriously, because they see it as a strategic issue, not a PR issue.

3. Set clear objectives

It’s sometimes quite tricky to work out exactly what the environmental movement wants to be done about climate change. For those interested to listen, there is a cacophony of messages about what should be done: families should downsize their cars; industry should become “carbon neutral”; kettles should be quarter-filled; investors should back sustainable energy; governments should sign Kyoto; everyone should buy halogen light-bulbs; businessmen should fly a little less – and when they fly, they should plant trees in penance.

It's understandable, of course. The environmental movement consists of many different constituencies, each working hard to address their own particular areas of concern. Even within a single organisation, different campaign groups may communicate with the public on different issues at the same time.

Even if we are successful in presenting climate change as a real and urgent problem, we are failing to present clear solutions. Climate change campaigners are, of course, painfully aware that there are no easy answers. There's no quick fix to climate change. However, if progress is to be made, we must be more strategic in the way we communicate solutions.

At the most straightforward level, this means we should always ask two simple questions each time we communicate with the public: who exactly are we communicating with, and what exactly do we want them to do? This may sound blindingly obvious - but there's little evidence that these questions are being routinely asked.

Ultimately, however, something a little more radical is needed. The scale of climate change as a problem, and the complexity of its solutions, demands that the environmental movement speaks with one voice on this issue. At the very least, the high-profile campaign groups need a coordinated approach. We need to pick our battles with more care, uniting behind a coherent campaign strategy - with carefully chosen targets and clear communications objectives.

The management gurus will tell you that strategy is about deciding what not to do. Communications strategy is no different: for us, it may mean deciding not to talk to a mass audience about polar bears (or halogen bulbs, or half-filling the kettle) but to communicate instead on the solutions that will have highest impact - such as building pressure on the United States to get behind Kyoto.

If the environmental movement were able to speak with one clear, consistent voice, and to present clear, feasible solutions, then we may have a better chance of making some real progress. If our communications remain fragmented and with no clear strategic direction, then I fear we are fighting a losing battle.

Jon Miller is a planner at Ogilvy & Mather, currently working on Coca Cola in China.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我想,欧洲人确实了解 气候变化带来的潜在危机,而且,这样的危机正在上演。你难道未察觉出迹象吗?但文 章看起来范围太大,而且,太恐怖了——有点像冷战时期的核武器威胁论。人们只会感 到无助。我们应该告诉大众他们能做些什么,小至教他们如何做到节能,大到如何向政 府施压,让政府重视气候变迁的影响。在中国?我认为中国人更关心他们的家庭。如果 我们不及时采取行动让他们停下脚步,想一想,他们会考虑他们的子孙将会生活在一场 大的灾难中吗?


knowing what to do?

I do think that people in Europe understand that climate change is potentially catastrophic and that it is already beginning to happen. How could you miss the signs? But it seems so huge and so terrifying -- a bit like the threat of nuclear war during the Cold War, that people feel helpless. We need to show people what they can do.. from using less energy themselves to putting pressure on their governments to get serious about climate change. In China? I thought Chinese people cared about their families. Doesn't the thought that their children and grandchildren will be living a catastrophe if we can't take action in time make them stop and think?
(posted by Marina)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


"全球温室效应"一个太过温雅的术语却来表述如此大灾难。我们必须提出一个全新的术语能够直接表述由于全球温室效应而造成的结果而不是仅描述出什么是“全球温室效应”。我提议使用“全球的寒冬”但也许不够醒目刺眼,或者“第二次洪灾”如何。Carlos M

Snappy name required

Global Warming is too gentle a term for such a catastrophy. We must come up with a new term that not only describes what it is but the direct consequences of global warming. How about. We tried "Global Winter" but it did not stick, "Second Flood"

Carlos M

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



politicians gotta buy it first

As Mr. Miller asserts, people need to 'buy it' - ie: grasp the severity and extent of the global warming issue. But it's politicians who need this rammed into their heads first. Short-termism, carbon-trading, disputing the science - all are hampering the implementation of direct economically-led objectives. The priority ought to be: Efficiency - and tackling the gross inefficiency of most industry, which wastes power, and all other resources.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Snappy name?

The problem is not the name. Words are important but reducing the challenge to naming is navel-gazing. What is the Chinese phrase?... Joe

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Fossil fuels

The main catalyst for global warming has been mankind's use of large amounts of fossil fuels (e.g. coal, oil etc.) over the past century, which has emitted large quantities of CO2 and other types of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Because these greenhouse gases permeate to a high degree the visible light of solar radiation, as well as absorbing to a high degree the long wave radiation reflected by the earth, the process commonly termed "greenhouse effect" takes place, and this leads to global warming of the atmosphere. The consequences of global warming could effect the redistribution of global rainfall, the melting of glaciers and frozen earth, rises in sea level etc. Since this poses a threat to the natural eco-system, it will pose an even greater threat to mankind's food supply and habitat.