What can climate activists learn from conventional marketing, protest & activism?
Pie Weeks & Pet Days
Allocating a special day/week/month/year to promote a particular thing, is a staple marketing strategy. Some examples, randomly selected from a randomly-selected digital marketing outfit:
- World Nutella Day
- Love Your Pet Day
- British Pie Week
- International Day of Happiness
- Star Wars Day
- World Emoji Day
- Sourdough September
- Black History Month
- World Mental Health Day
- Black Friday
- World Sandwich Day
First, the good news
Whether you’re seeking to ‘raise awareness’ of mental health or to sell more pies, allocating a particular Day/Week/Month/Year to promote your cause or product has clear benefits. The mother of all Days, Mother’s Day, is both model and cautionary tale.
Name a Day, and you create a focus for your efforts to draw attention to your particular product, activity or concern. The idea is that the more you hype this particular moment, the greater the impact becomes.
Every marketing budget has its limits, so it makes sense to get the most bang for your buck. X Day, Y Week or Z Month may be the push that nudges your thing into the next level of public awareness. It could be the initial impetus of a snowball effect, the catalyst, the first domino.
The Internet is a busy place, competing for the eyeballs of busy people. There’s a lot of noise out there, so rather than blending in with the background hubbub, it makes sense to concentrate your efforts into one loud honk.
Bigging up a special day for something also creates an awkward problem – what does it imply about the other 364 days, 51 weeks or 11 months?
It’s a question familiar to mothers, who have a meal cooked for them on Mother’s Day, before doing the cooking for the rest of the year.
Or, presumably, equally familiar to purveyors of sourdough between October to August.
Let’s not even mention the implications of World Happiness Day. Or how pets are treated for 99% of their lives.
Pointing this out may appear churlish, or obtuse. Why rain on someone else’s parade? Why be a party-pooper? Where’s the harm? Celebrations are supposed to be safe spaces where nothing cynical or inconvenient intrudes.
But truths, however inconvenient, remain true. Once the confetti is in the bin, and the bunting folded in the drawer for next time, they’re still there, 24/7.
Problems don’t go away if you ignore them most of the time. Activists, advertisers, producers and promoters spend 365 days a year thinking about their thing, and aspire to persuade the rest of us we should do the same. But ‘raising awareness’ is a woolly concept, made even woollier if you have no means of measuring impact in advance.
Measuring Nutella and climate activism
If you can’t measure the long-term impact of ‘raising awareness’, how can you claim it’s effective?
Much of the advertising industry, and most of our Silicon Valley Overlords’ business models, are based on the assumption that ‘engagement’ is an end in itself. These days, engagement is usually measured in the post-Internet online currencies of Likes, Subscribes, Reactions and Shares.
But just as a supermarket’s viral Christmas video doesn’t guarantee shifting more tins of beans, ‘raising awareness’ of this disease or that issue, doesn’t itself mean anything has changed. Clicks and Likes are beguilingly measurable, but make it easy to lose sight of the point of the whole exercise.
How much difference does your Special Day, Week, Month or Year actually make?
This awkward question is as true of climate activism as it is of selling Nutella.
Except it’s immeasurably more important. Mitigating the worst effects of our disastrous fossil fuel addiction is by far the most important thing any of us can do for ourselves and any surviving generations.
So is it really a good idea to market climate action as if it were a movie franchise?
If you find the use of the work ‘market’ objectionable in the context of climate activism, why? If you’re pulling all the same levers that people marketing tins of beans use, honking the same marketing horns, and deploying the same marketing tricks, why not call a market a market?
So how was Earth Day for you?
Earth Day was first celebrated on April 22 1970. The differences between its original purpose, and its current form, are instructive.
Back in 1970, Exxon’s in-house scientists were years away from circulating their remarkably accurate predictions of global heating to the boardroom. In 1970, Exxon executives were yet to decide to suppress this in-house research, disband the internal research group that came up with it, allocate climate denial funding, set up front campaigns to confuse the public, and hire top PR and advertising agencies to carry out a decades-long climate misinformation campaign.
In 1970, Earth Day was about pollution, not carbon emissions. The Greenhouse Effect was an obscure 19th-century hypothesis, then known only to science historians. Public consciousness in 1970 was informed by dystopian visions like Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, warning of the environmental harm created by the post-war rampages of Big Chemical, or the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. That was the biggest at the time, though it’s now bronze medallist behind Deepwater Horizon (2010) and Exxon Valdez (1989).
Earth Day was one of the last gasps of the Sixties spirit, before the dark decades of nuclear detente, and OPEC thraldom. Sober-suited anchors like Walker Kronkite introduced the original Earth Day in sombre reports, delivered in the portentous tones usually reserved for Missile Crises and Cold War proxy wars in Southeast Asia, Africa and Central America.
In 1970, activists thought the enemy was industrial pollutants and contamination. Watching these reports, reading the impassioned, sincere exhortations of Earth Day creators like Senator Gaylord Nelson, following activist Denis Hayes delivering campus ‘teach-ins’, or hearing scientists like Professor Barry Commoner telling chilled audiences that ‘this planet is threatened with destruction, and we who live on it with death’, seems almost quaint now.
If only it were so simple.
This is the uncomfortable truth of Earth Day. The message may have shifted from pollution to greenhouse gases, but either way, it demonstrably hasn’t worked. What should we conclude?
Is activism like Earth Day inherently flawed, or just not yet big enough?
To glue yourself, or not to glue yourself, that is the question…
When the crisis is so overwhelming, the urgency so great, and the forces of inaction so oppressive, the urge to ‘do something’ is perfectly rational. It’s the opposite of doing nothing.
This is why movements like Extinction Rebellion stage mass marches, Just Stop Oil protestors disrupt televised sports events, and Insulate Britain protestors glue themselves to motorways, knowing they’ll lead to jail sentences.
Are these types of protest effective? If so, how can we measure their efficacy?
The more analytical type of activists advance four basic types of arguments for mass protests, publicity stunts, civil disobedience, etc.. They’re used to justify the kind of actions that can make headlines on Earth Day, or any actions that make the news on the other 364 non-Earth Days. In no particular order, they are:
- It can’t do any harm
- It might change some minds
- It gives us a sense of solidarity
- It results in measurable, beneficial impacts.
Argument 1: First, do no harm
1 is at best debatable, and the fact that it’s a matter of debate, and not proof by more objective means, is precisely the problem. If the objective is to change hearts and minds, does disrupting traffic by glueing yourself to a motorway work?
The whole point of such civil disobedience activism is to disrupt. It will certainly attract attention, not just on the day, but in the ensuing legal proceedings. But it’s simply not true that all publicity is good publicity. Ask Prince Andrew.
Glueing yourself to a motorway may guarantee headline, but it also guarantees provoking accusations of ‘irresponsibility’ by those missing hospital appointments, funerals and weddings. It permits mass media owned by billionaires who profit from the status quo to amplify the voices of the inconvenienced, providing a helpful distraction from the issues on which the protestors were protesting.
Proponents of the ‘Can’t do any harm’ school might point to historic examples of similar protests prompting positive change, like the pre-WW1 actions of British Suffragettes seeking the vote for women, or 1960s American civil rights sit-ins.
True, but both those movements took decades to work. When it comes to stopping using fossil fuels, we don’t have decades.
Argument 2: It Might Change Minds
Argument 2, is a more assertive, positive one than that negative notion of Argument 1. Who could argue with the possibility, and hope, implicit in the ‘It might change some minds’ justification.
Not most campaigners. How often have you heard protestors justify their actions with phrases like ‘if only one child/person/animal/refugee were to be saved as a result of my actions, it would have made all my sacrifice and hard work worthwhile’.
It’s hard to argue with such statements, especially when delivered by people who have suffered personal losses related to their cause.
But activists seeking measurable results are surely right to bring some objective cost/benefit analysis into it. Some sense of proportion is surely required to justify all that time and effort.
We’ve written elsewhere about the pioneering research of Harvard historian Erica Chenoweth, and the body of evidence her team has accumulated on the trigger point required by mass civil resistance. It’s astonishingly consistent over time and space – get 3.5% of any given population taking to the streets for any given issue, and they’ll get their way.
Such evidence-based foundations, focused on numbers and targets, is what’s lacking in Argument 2. The basic problem with ‘It might change minds’ is the word ‘might’, which we’ll address in Argument 4 below.
Argument 3: It Gives Us a Sense of Solidarity
Argument 3 too is hard to deny, because it’s undeniable.
If protestors say that acting in concert with other like-minded people improves their mental health, boosts them with a sense of common purpose, and lifts them from their gloom, no one else can gainsay such claims.
Human-induced eco-cide is not a topic likely to lift the spirits of anyone who spends a lot of time dwelling on the subject. Anything that replaces fatalistic depression and inactivity with purpose and action has to be a good thing. But for whom?
Definitely, a good thing for the protestors. But it doesn’t even reference those outside the choir, the lost souls yet to ‘see the light’. Or to put it less colourfully, the vast majority of us who See Through News refers to as ‘Unwilling Inactivists‘, i.e. those who accept the science and reality of climate change, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
Argument 3 makes perfect sense as personal therapy and individual motivation, but doesn’t even pretend to address the issue of being effective marketing for anyone else.
Argument 4: It results in Measurable, Beneficial Impacts.
For See Through News, this is the only argument that matters.
If you can’t measure impact, how can you reasonably claim success? If ‘raising awareness’ and ‘educating the public’ are the end, rather than the means to the end, how can anyone know if it’s really worth it?
To return to our uncomfortable ‘marketing’ realm, if you sold tins of bean, how convincing would you find a marketing agency who kept boasting of the advertising awards garnered by your expensive campaign, when there was no measurable impact on sales? You might be justified is asking who had benefitted more from all that time, effort and expense, your business or the marketing agency.
Our own methodology avoids using ‘The C-Word’ wherever possible. Ideally, we don’t mention carbon at all. Persuading Unwilling Inactivists to measurable reduce carbon without even mentioning words like ‘carbon’, ‘green’, ‘Earth’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘activist’ avoids unnecessary battles.
Critics may be right in claiming our under-the-radar, transparent Trojan Horse approach is too subtle, but we’re not suggesting there’s only one right answer. Our approach is complementary, not contradictory.
Mass actions by Extinction Rebellion and other environmental protestors do measurably ‘shift the dial’ of public opinion. Compare the tone of the mass media coverage of their 2019 London protests with that the ones taking place now, and it’s clear that they’ve achieved their aim of shifting the ‘Overton Window’ framing public debate.
But what’s the metric for window-shifting?
More to the point, what’s the exchange rate between centimetres shifted, and CO2 reduced?
So what does marketing tins of beans teach climate activists?
- Clear-eyed, evidence-based connection between marketing strategy and measurable outcome.
- Provable correlations between marketing cause and market effect.
If activism doesn’t include a clear metric and mechanism for calculating its impact, its efficacy will always be up for debate, a matter of persuasion rather than proof.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean any form of activism that doesn’t follow this actuarial approach is futile, or self-indulgent. Greta Thunberg’s deft manipulation of media headlines, with withering put-downs like ‘Build Back Better – Blah Blah Blah‘, definitely have massive impact, measured by column inches, online engagement and internet memes. It would be foolish to claim they had no effect beyond those, but reasonable to ask how we could know whether they did or not.
For we can also measure, in the same terms, the negative impact of Greta-style pugnacity. Badge your cause with terms like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ”eco’, or even ‘activism’ itself, and you risk a backlash.
Climate denier vested interests – the Government, Business and Media heads of The Three-Headed Beasts – have colluded to weaponise these words. Climate activists may wear them as badges of honour, but billionaire-owned mass media successfully deploy them as straw men opponents.
Mass media are expert marketers. The same people who turned ‘woke’ from a positive to a negative adjective have contrived to deploy ‘Green’, ‘Greta’ and ‘activist’ as grenades in their confected culture wars, designed to distract us from taking effective climate action.
Badging your activism with the same toxified terms risks playing their game, and obligingly falling into their trap, one See Through News seeks to avoid.
The world is far too complex to reduce effective climate action to simple cause and effect, but that’s no reason not to try.
Like carbon auditing, perfection is impossible, but that’s no excuse for inaction, or giving up.
The Three-Headed Beasts of Government, Business and Media, linked below the neck by Power, and below the waist by Money, pay top dollar for the world’s best marketing brains.
As we decide how to invest our limited ‘climate action’ resources, and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it’s worth learning from the best.