Effective climate action lessons from a powerful but pusillanimous TV ad
An almost–perfect advertisement
This powerful film is everywhere – in the cinema, on TV and online. If you’ve missed it, it’s worth investing 60” to watch. It’s an advertisement called ‘It’s Time To Act’.
As the title suggests, the ad sets up an explicit, blunt, no-messing-about call to action. Featuring Hollywood-level production values, ‘It’s Time To Act’ is set to a discordantly-languid a capella version of the Jerry Ragovoy song (famously covered by the Rolling Stones) ‘Time Is On My Side’.
A relaxed arrangement is absently sung by a chorus of ordinary folk, gazing vacantly at screens while they work at a desk, slump on a sofa, sprawl on a bed and stand at a lectern.
The languorous tone of the song contrasts, increasingly jarringly, with a series of progressively apocalyptic settings. The desks, sofas, beds and lecterns are located amid a crescendo of cracking sea ice, floods, fires and tempests. As the singers warble away, absorbed by the screen in front of them, they’re oblivious – until the very end, when an orchestra joins their song – to their life-threatening situations.
A 57” Storytelling Masterclass
For 57 seconds ‘It’s Time To Act’ is a visual storytelling masterclass. It deploys the advertising industry’s full arsenal of heartstring-tugging weapons: jarring juxtapositions, subtle and subversive sound design, astonishing special effects, sonorous voiceover, simple and direct messaging.
These tricks are usually deployed to convince us we not only want, but need, some branded stuff or other. For 57 seconds, they’re unleashed to jolt us from our slavish consumer complacency. ‘Wake up, sheeple!’, scream the ad’s first 57 seconds. ‘The biggest crisis in human history is happening right now, right under our our noses. We’ve all got to act RIGHT NOW!!!!’.
Cumulatively, these opening 57 seconds are powerful stuff. Textbook climate activism, we’d say.
With arresting visuals, expertly juxtaposed with beguilingly un-congruent sounds, ‘It’s Time To Act’ achieves in 57 seconds what thousands of pages of IPCC reports by the world’s most expert scientists fail to do. We like to believe we’re ruled by reason, but advertisers know better. The ad works because it expertly, and shamelessly, jabs at the emotional buttons that actually govern our actions.
This emotional appeal makes ‘It’s Time To Act’ much more accessible, and hence more effective, than so many examples of ineffective climate action. Early-Greta fact-bashing, Extinction Rebellion mass civil disobedience, or targeted Just Stop Oil disruptions of sporting events, are all compromised in some way, entrenching opposition rather than converting the Inactive.
In a mere 57 seconds the filmmakers cut straight to the heart of the problem. The ad exposes the inconvenient truth that the cause of our climate crisis isn’t lack of evidence or unavailable technology, but our mass refusal to face uncomfortable reality.
We’re all figuratively – even literally – playing online games or bickering over culture wars on social media, while the world drowns, burns and shrivels around us.
10/10 for Problem Framing
The first 57 seconds of ‘It’s Time To Act’ is an exceptionally powerful statement of The Problem. It’s sophisticated, emotive storytelling that’s gees up the Inactive to take Action, and tees up a call to action. It achieves this without scaring borderline Unwilling Inactivists into doubling down on Inaction through despair, or providing an easy excuse for carrying on as usual through provocative disruption.
This is the kind of storytelling See Through News aspires to use to promote effective climate action. It’s why we write so many articles alerting non-professionals to these trade storytelling tricks. By pointing out the conjuring tricks, we seek both to expose how easily the forces of Inaction manipulate us, and how effectively they can be exploited to promote effective climate Action.
As we’re all different, our storytelling case studies are diverse, reflecting a wide repertoire of tricks to tailor the same call to Action (measurably reducing carbon) to different audiences. It’s why we’ve written articles on Holllywood movies, stand-up comedians, Oxford University debates on cows, and celebrity articles about Electric Vehicles.
It’s why when we deploy these storytelling tricks ourselves, our own projects range from school Language Day speeches, to bedtime story podcasts, community filmmaking events, and many other apparently random projects.
Not random, but the same message delivered in different forums in which we humans, one way or another, tell each other stories.
Expensive general release ads, like ‘It’s Time To Act’ are designed to appeal to as many people as possible. The team behind ‘It’s Time To Act’ are targeting a mass of Unwilling Inactivists. The ad features ordinary people, not celebrities, placing them in everyday situations, not fantasy stunts.
This is what the advertising industry does best. The same box of tricks are usually employed to sell us more consumer junk we don’t need, by attaching consumer products to base human emotions. ‘It’s Time To Act’ exploits the power of emotive imagery to jolt Unwilling Inactivists from the very complacency they’re exposing on screen.
For 57 seconds, this ad brilliantly exposes the most critical problem of all – our collective lack of urgency in addressing the climate crisis.
0/10 for Solution Offering
But the ad is 60 seconds long.
A story is only as good as its ending. A Problem Stated is only as strong as the Solution Suggested.
And the final 3 seconds blow it.
After rousing viewers to a peak of receptiveness to a call to action, the call to action is…switch your energy provider.
The ad, it turns out, is for domestic power supplier E.ON. The last 3” of the 60” ad feature a sun-bathed suburb festooned with solar panels, and the following text:
Solar panels | EV chargers | heat pumps
Even more bathetically, along the bottom of the screen runs the standard legalese disclaimers that we probably wouldn’t read, even if we had time to notice it.
Energy efficiency eligibility criteria, regional restrictions, and T&Cs apply.
Wow, E.ON. You really know how to kill a party.
At this point we could go on a greenwash-detection spree, subjecting the German energy company to our usual corporate greenwash fact-checking (if you’re interested, E.ON’s sustainability credentials are better than most, but far from the best).
We’d encourage you to do your own fact-checking, as a responsible consumer choosing any supplier, or buying any product.
But the point of this article is to point out what a spectacular missed opportunity this was.
In the final in 3 seconds, just as they had the chance to lead a mass revolt against the powers of Inaction, the Three-Headed Beasts of Government, Business and Media that stand between us and carbon drawdown, E.ON reveals itself to be at best a cowardly bystander, and at worst a complicit Beast posing as a sheep.
In three seconds, E.ON spectatularly blows whatever credibility it had so magically accumulated over the previous 57 seconds of unbranded cinematic experience.
What were they THINKING?
This review of the ad, from ad trade rag The Drum, is a depressingly revealing answer to why E.ON missed this golden opportunity they’d created for themselves.
After misattributing the song to another cover artist (Irma Thomas), the article, apparently without irony or even a raised eyebrow, regurgitates the ad-makers in-house greenwash.
In a bid to align the content of the campaign with its creation, creative collective agency, House 337, ensured the process of making ‘It’s Time’ had as little carbon impact as possible, using a combination of solar-powered studios, a responsibly sourced wardrobe, recycled rather than refilled water tanks and keeping travel and shoot attendees to an absolute minimum.
Every partner involved also had a clear commitment to sustainability. Checklists were used to track the entire process from the carpenters to the caterers and after all carbon reductions were made, the entire production’s carbon footprint was calculated with any remaining carbon output offset.
The award-garlanded advertising agency that made the film is also generously and uncritically quoted:
As Ross Newton, creative director at House 337, explains: “It’s incredibly important that we all act on the climate crisis, but we didn’t want to use the same old shock tactics. Instead, we wanted to highlight the behavior that we’re all guilty of. We hope that on seeing the ad, viewers will feel a sense of frustration that the people in each scenario aren’t reacting to the devastation surrounding them, and feel empathy towards them as they recognize that behavior in themselves, and consider what steps we can all take to become part of the solution.”
Naturally, the client gets its unchallenged say too.
Scott Somerville, chief marketing officer at E.ON adds, “Whether it’s governments, businesses or homeowners, there’s a huge amount of positive intention when it comes to sustainable energy, but rarely do any of us bring enough urgency to the situation. Regardless of the brand, product or service you’re promoting, it’s time to rethink our responsibilities and ensure that we all take steps, no matter how small or big, to begin in earnest that critical path to change we need as a society.”
These fine sentiments are hard to contest, and admirable. But only if you’d not seen the actual final message of the ad, which is ‘buy our energy, not theirs’.
After all that high-minded cant, in the end their only call to action is to switch energy providers.
After rallying the masses to storm the barricades, it turns out E.ON is just politely enquiring which firing squad we’d prefer to finish us off.
It makes you wonder if, despite all the creative talent, brain power, resources and enthusiasm behind this ad, they ever even debated the blindingly obvious bathos of its final message.
‘Bathos’ is generous, like our score of 0/10. After raising expectation so high, only to dash them, a negative score might be more appropriate, as it could leave viewers in even more despair (despair= Inaction) than 60 seconds before.
What a waste
Did E.ON or House 337 consider alternative, less obviously short-term and self-interested endings?
If not the creatives, at no point did one hard-headed bean-counter wonder aloud if, in the long run, something more in keeping with the previous 57 seconds might deliver better shareholder value?
The ad betrays no such consideration. The Drum article suggests client and agency are probably all jolly pleased with themselves, parading their meaningless carbon offsets and jockeying for industry awards.
Meanwhile, millions of people will see the ad. How many will ask the questions posed by this article?
Advertisers, and advertising agencies will carry on making narrow-focus ads while the world drowns, burns and shrivels. E.ON and House 337 will get paid, sit on their hands, sing along to ‘Time Is On My Side’, and generally betray the very obliviousness portrayed in this ad.
The shortest route to a sustainable future is to harness existing economic and governance system, rather than try to replace them. Ads like ‘It’s Time To Act’ make you wonder if capitalism can ever adapt to sustainability.
Our Final 3 second suggestions
In case we’ve not made our point by now, here are some alternative ways E.ON could have ended their ad.
Here’s a real ‘big step’ – why not lose the corporate logo altogether?
Or, if that’s too radical, how about making it much more unobtrusive? This would suggest some sincerity in their desire to ‘begin in earnest that critical path to change we need as a society’.
It wouldn’t have been as convincing as no logo at all, but a bit of small, unobtrusive branding at the bottom would have been OK. It could replace the disclaimer boilerplate blurb about ‘Energy efficiency eligibility criteria’. It toot would only noticeable on repeated viewing, but would come over as modest, rather than evasive. At a stretch, they could even precede their logo with ‘Paid for by’ or ‘Endorsed by’.
As for centre screen, instead of their corporate logo and products, they could have had finished with a more rousing, effective and actionable, call to action. Imagine if the text on the screen, and intoned by the sonorous voiceover, were:
- Tell your MP To Act Now
- Government Regulation, Not Consumer Choice
- Buy Less of Our Product
Or even, dare we suggest:
- Just Stop Oil
When we’ve finished our own calls to action, which result in measurable reducing carbon, we’d be delighted if they tried:
These are all genuine calls to action They may or may not benefit the shareholders of E.ON., but each actually addresses the human-induced climate crisis the first 57 seconds of this ad so brilliantly depict.