Fear-Based Marketing Has No Place in the Mainstream Climate Change Debate

originally published by Ian Edwards BardMBA ’15 on TriplePundit

The underwhelming launch in August of Milton Glaser’s new graphic campaign — “It’s not warming. It’s dying” —

When it comes to climate change, voting, marching and innovating are “achievable, empowering, scalable and marketable,” argues Ian Edwards — and are far more successful than fear tactics.
When it comes to climate change, voting, marching and innovating are “achievable, empowering, scalable and marketable,” argues Ian Edwards — and are far more successful than fear tactics.shows in dreary shades of green the many ongoing branding and marketing challenges of the climate change movement.

The prolific graphic design genius behind the happy and ubiquitous “I ♥ NY” slogan (that single-handedly rebranded a struggling city in 1977) can’t even get it right.

His design of a green disk shrouded in a deathly black fog is dull, and the tagline is just plain wrong. The planet is warming according to the many scientific minds at the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change, as just one source blaming humans for making climate change worse. Additionally, the people living here are indeed threatened, but this big orbiting rock will outlive us all.

With an issue as polarizing as climate change, accuracy is important.

The ‘sustainability’ conversation – of which the climate change discourse is a critical subset — needs recalibration, traction and a spark that will ignite it in the mainstream beyond the lukewarm response to the crisis to date. How much more evidence do we need that the language of fear, which Glaser uses, fails to engage and inspire action?
The term ‘sustainability’ was adopted to make “save the world” earnestness palatable for stodgy boardroom meetings — and to let businesses seem like they are part of the environmental solution. At its core, ‘sustainability’ is about surviving, rather than thriving. No wonder it doesn’t change behavior.

It’s often not even genuine: As the Economist recently made vivid, so-called ‘sustainability’ programs in most business are misnamed when they are simply efficiency programs veiled in do-gooder activities for PR gains.

‘Climate change’ — or the more provocative term ‘global warming’  — is also abstract and, as is the case in the U.S., politicized beyond meaning. Despite compelling science and super storms, it is mired in the language of faith, or humanity’s birthright entitlements, or government overstep.

If there is any success in marketing climate change awareness, it’s not yet in the mainstream marketing channels that speak to everyone, but in the domains of non-governmental organizations that preach primarily to the converted. Groups like World Wildlife Fund and 350.org  have a head start in using clever, stakeholder-engaging marketing to link the way we live with the effects of climate change. The Guardian ran arepresentative list in 2013.

As a progressive consumer, I can send a few dollars to save a whale or spotted owl or starving child in Africa, but saving the climate needs a whole lot more engagement and sacrifice. Which may explain why Glaser’s latest effort to woo the mainstream with fear falls short.

Twenty years ago, social marketing researcher Kim Witte established a framework that tracked campaigns — like health ads for anti-smoking, HIV/AIDs prevention and teen pregnancy awareness – that used shame, fear and blame to scare people into better behavior.

“The minute that perceived threat exceeds perceived efficacy [the ability to effectively respond], then people begin to control their fear instead of the danger and they reject the message,” she says in The Use of Fear Appeals, an undated presentation available online.

Someone might agree with Glaser and might even be scared by his campaign — but they also feel powerless and, as a result, ignore it.

Except, it’s not like we haven’t tackled abstract environmental bogeymen before.

In the 1970s we dealt with the scary issue of ozone depletion caused by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in common products like aerosol cans. I remember the advocacy messaging in my comic books. By the 1990s, we marshaled a U.S. response to the dangers of acid rain through emission caps and the Clean Air Act.

Why not climate change?

As a top-line summary: The deniers’ work to sow doubt is effective, and the fix seems way too painful. We need better terms of reference. We need to put the focus on the parties who can actually get creative ideas in place and at scale.

As an alternative to ‘sustainability,’ the term ‘resilience’ is a great word – offering hope, the sense that we can rebound and that something can be done. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate is focusing the fight in the right arena – the ballot box, the stalled government process and candidates who believe in addressing climate change. The NYC People’s Climate March on Sept. 21 has the potential to vividly prove the widespread solidarity on this issue, swing momentum in the conversation and bring groups like 350.org into the mainstream. And, if the viral spread of the Tesla Motors brand is any indication, the public is hungry for exciting alternatives, innovations and evidence of humanity’s ability to practically address the environmental challenge.

All of which points to an opportunity to reframe the overall conversation – in which marketers can be pivotal and constructive. To borrow from Witte, we might ask ourselves what allows the mainstream to feel effective in changing our collective ‘risky’ behavior as it relates to climate change? Voting, marching and innovating are achievable, empowering, scalable and marketable.

Image credit: Flickr/takver

Based in New York City, Ian Edwards is a Sustainability Communications consultant and Sustainability MBA candidate at Bard. www.linkedin.com/in/ianedwards/

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