Celebrities amplify the voices of scientists urging immediate climate action. Without a clear, measurable call to action, their activism energy risks being wasted, if it does nothing beyond ‘raise awareness’.
Creative communicators deploy their storytelling skills to deliver climate change messages. How effective are they and how can they become more effective?
Celebrity Currency Conversion
Celebrities and their handlers know how social media works. Every day, they deal in the online currencies of eyeballs, Hits, Clicks, Likes and Shares.
Using eyeball-to-dollar currency converters like click-through payments, endorsements and brand extensions, they convert online fame into money.
Breakthrough ‘viral’ stars who make the leap from obscurity to celebrity encourage the rest of us to believe we too could win the lottery. Our chances of ever getting rich and famous are just as slim, but we’re still happy to tweet our tweets, post our posts, TikTok our TikToks, upload our videos and tag our friends, enriching Silicon Valley with our delicious data.
Some celebrities are prepared to donate some of their valuable eyeball currency for the greater good, by speaking out in favour of this cause, or publicly endorsing that charity. If they come up with some killer content, they could end up profiting, by increasing their exposure beyond their current fanbase, but let’s not be churlish.
After all, attention is the greatest gift a celebrity can give. Their motives don’t actually make any difference to the charity or cause concerned. Celebrities are good at pretending. We can’t tell whether they’re a passionate, well-informed advocate with a powerful personal lived experience, or a cynical narcissist reading from an autocue. The impact is the same, and -this is rather the point about this article – it’s all about the impact.
The more climate change reveals itself to be a current ‘now’ problem and not a future ‘not yet’ problem, the more of us are connecting the dots. We’re realising that the other causes that are so divisive and which have aroused such passion, are secondary issues, should our civilisation self-destruct.
Set against civilizational breakdown, race, gender, social, civil rights, culture wars etc., suddenly start looking like ‘nice problems to have’. What’s certain is that all forms of injustice are exacerbated by global heating.
There was a time when celebrities were cautious about endorsing an issue as ‘controversial’ as climate change. Thankfully, we appear to be past that point now, for all but a diminishing minority with specialist Denier appeal.
Appearing in climate-related content is hardly contentious to the mainstream these days. The reputational risk of promoting climate action is no longer in alienating your Denier fan base, but in getting hoodwinked by greenwashers, and being made to look foolish when this is made obvious.
It’s a risk more and more celebs are prepared to take. Concerned stars of stage, screen and sports appear in our social media feeds, fronting direct appeals and clever consciousness-raising videos, adding their megaphones to the chorus of scientists and activists, who’ve long shouted themselves hoarse.
COP Climate Clickbait
Climate activist content is a growth business. We’ve described how energy companies and Hollywood filmmakers have tried, and failed, to gain traction using advertising and movie-making techniques. There’s one time of year, however, when there’s a surge of ‘climate awareness’ videos. COP season.
‘Green activist’ content snowballs into an avalanche whenever there’s a COP on. (COPs, for those confused by these climate events, are an annual opportunity for those with the power to stop burning fossil fuels to explain why, despite all the evidence and fine words of the previous editions, we still need another COP. They can be summarised as ‘Sure, we’ll have a revolution, just as soon as the pub closes‘.)
Here are three current case studies of climate-related celebrity clickbait. Nothing scientific about their selection, beyond them being examples that See Through News volunteers have brought to our attention, asking for assessments of their effectiveness. They all happen to be made in the UK, featuring well-known personalities, but that doesn’t change the point of this article.
If you’ve not seen them, we include links and brief descriptions below. As for our assessments, they come at the end.
Without giving it away, there’s a consistent problem with all these case studies, meaning our approach could be an effective litmus test for judging any such content. Which is why we’re sharing it with you in this article.
Clue – pay close attention to the specificity of the calls to action.
But first, the clickbait content case studies…
Case study 1: comedians translating climate science
There are 4 videos in this series.
Each features a distinguished climate science expert, paired with a popular stand-up comedian.
- Mark Maslin & Jo Brand
- Friedericke Otto & Nish Kumar
- Joanna Haigh & Jonathan Pie (a YouTube character played by actor Tom Walker)
- Bill McGuire & Kiri Pritchard-McClean
The videos last 3-5 minutes, with sweary and non-sweary versions. With minor variations, they follow the same basic format.
- A few seconds of apparently ‘off-camera’ out-takes from the interviews help establish the set-up
- A short title sequence explains the mission ‘Climate Science is complicated, so we’re translating it into human’
- Once the video proper starts, the climate scientist speaks to camera for a few seconds, sometimes aided by graphics and charts, delivering authoritative, terrifying, measured climate facts in neutral, academic language
- The comedian ‘translates’ these statements into gags, combining humour and incredulity
- At the end of the translation section, which lasts around two minutes, this text appears: ‘All hands on deck now. Share this video. Vote. Visit your MP. Join a local group. Protest’. This is on screen for around 7 seconds
- Then a logo and web address for climatesciencebreakthrough.com appears, with hashtags like #NoNewOil, #EndFossilFuels, and #TimeToShowUp. This is on screen for around 3 seconds
- Then another minute or so of ‘chat’ between the protagonists, which appears unscripted and spontaneous, as they interact empathetically and informally
- For around 10 seconds, credits whizz by at bottom of the screen while we see the onscreen message ‘www.climatesciencebreakthrough.com for ideas and action’ (No QR code)
- The scientist makes a direct-to-camera plea to politicians to take effective action
- The website and logo are repeated for 3 seconds at the end
That’s it, really. A simple idea, eminently repeatable, very watchable, very funny, very scary.
The comedians’ responses are sophisticated, using humour to communicate complex thoughts effectively, without trivialising them. The scientists, despite their stiff and formal delivery of the science bits, come across as warm, empathetic human beings, thanks to the informal conversation top-and-tailing
Call To Action
Here’s the point, though. Skip to the hashtag, i.e. the explicit call to action, and what happens next.
If you can retain the 34-character web address in your head long enough to type it into a web browser, or pause the video at the right moment while you do so, or fetch a pencil and paper to write it down, you land on the www.climatesciencebreakthrough.com website.
On the home page are six options, one of which is Actions.
Click on Actions, and there are five further options:
- Join a Protest
- Break The Bank
- Get On Your MP’s Case
- Rally Your Neighbour
- Spread the Science
All are underlined with a thick red line, suggesting they contain links for more details. They don’t. They’re just text. What to do next is up to you.
Can you feel your enthusiasm evaporating?
Case study 2: Oblivion starring Olivia Colman
Unsurprisingly for a pressure group chaired by Love, Actually director Richard Curtis, this video features A-List star power, in the form of actor Olivia Colman. It’s only 1’17”, so we hope you have time to watch it, but here’s the executive summary:
- Starting with a tight head shot, the camera slowly pulls back, revealing Colman as a black latex-clad Bond villain, tended by suited flunkies
- For 59 seconds, ‘Oblivia Coalmine’ thanks us all, simperingly, satirically, sarcastically, smugly, for paying Big Oil to keep drilling via our pension funds
- After the smirking punchline ‘You know the drill!’, there’s a 3-second Curtisesque gag (which we won’t spoil)
- For the next 8 seconds, white-on-black text reinforces the core message, ‘your money is fuelling the climate crisis’
- For the next 3 seconds, the text ‘Act now at www.makemymoneymatter.co.uk’ appears. (No QR code)
- Then 3 seconds of the Make My Money Matter logo
- Then a final Curtisesque 3-second gag
Call To Action
- If you can remember the 28-character web URL, you can type it into your browser without pausing and rewinding
- At the top of the Make My Money Matter home page is a smallish ‘Green my pension’ button
- Click on that and you land on another web page, with more explanation, including another video. At the top of the page is an identical ‘Green my pension’ button
- Click on that and…you land on the same page
- If you’re still keen to take action, you might think to scroll down, revealing a button reading ‘Act now’
- There you’ll find a button saying ‘Please select your pension fund’
- Click on that to reveal a drop-down menu of dozens of major pension providers
- You’ll also see the text of the email to send them, which ends:
‘In particular, I would like to know how you plan to:
1. Use your power to end fossil fuel expansion
2. Tackle deforestation in your portfolio
3. Invest more in climate solutions
By addressing these issues, schemes like ours can help tackle the climate emergency and protect member returns. 2023 must be a critical year for climate action, and I want to make sure my money isn’t making the situation worse. I look forward to hearing from you on what action you are taking on these key areas.
- Then you send your email
- What proportion of people viewing the Olivia Colman video do you think will end up emailing their pension funds?
- If you were a pension fund, how would you respond to an email from a customer politely informing you they’re ‘looking forward to hearing from you on what action you are taking’, but not specifying what measurable, binary actions they might be looking for?
- Can you think of any way(s) this campaign could be made more effective?
Case study 3: We Tried by Louise Harrls
We Tried is a 4’53” music video.
- It starts with a 20-second piano intro, featuring the tear-stained face of singer/songwriter Louise Harris, intercut with text explaining ‘This is a song about the climate crisis and what will happen if we don’t act’
- Harris delivers a plangent, intimate ballad, overlaid with powerful news images of protest, poverty, pollution and power, and family photos of her as an (innocent) child
- The music steadily swells to an emotive tidal-wave crescendo, with full orchestra
- At 4 minutes there’s a dramatic twist which we won’t spoil, that ratchets the emotional stakes up to an even high peak
- The music fades to silence at 4’15”, when the screen fades to black
- To silence, in white text, a quotes from an IPCC report gives qualified hope, so long as we act now
- At 4’30”, text types out, typewriter-style, ‘Join collective action today‘
- At 4’34”, the logos and web addresses of 11 diverse UK climate protest and action groups appears. (No QR codes)
- At 4’36”, they’re replaced by 14 diverse international climate protest and action groups
- Replaced, at 4’38”, by another 12 logos and websites. No QR codes
- Replaced, at 4’40”, by a book and an art exhibit. No QR codes
- Replaced, at 4’44”, by four book covers. No QR codes
- Replaced, at 4’47” by the web home page with the text ‘this retreat centre changed my life’. No QR code
- Cutting, at 4’50”, to another family photo for two seconds before the video ends
Call To Action
The moving, powerful, visceral, gut-wrenching song is followed by 44 discreet and unrelated calls to action in 16 seconds.
All require remembering and searching for a name you have fractions of a second to read and remember, unless you freeze frame it, and check them all out one by one.
So what’s the point?
This question applies to each particular video, but also more broadly to the point of climate activism.
Like fossil fuels, climate activism is a precious and finite resource. Such resources should be cherished, eked out, and judiciously deployed for maximum impact.
However committed we may be, however distressed at our collective inaction, we all have a limit to our personal action budget. We all have busy lives – rent to pay, work to go to, mouths to feed, friends to see, families to keep in touch with. Whatever time and energy we have left over, needs to be well invested.
For campaigners and activists seeking to incentivise the public to invest its limited climate action budget in taking some action to retard, arrest and reverse global heating, it’s important not to waste this resource. Moving people from a state of doing nothing, to doing something, is really hard.
Just ask advertisers trying to get us to buy more fizzy pop, cars, or sports shoes.
These films, and others like them, are made by similarly talented storytellers. All three of these examples are artfully crafted by experts at getting ordinary people to stop and pay attention. Celebrity names may help make people start watching, but not to watch all the way to the end, and be moved to do something other than click on the next video. If we get bored, patronised or lectured, auto-play will take our minds elswhere, and the moment is lost.
Which makes it all the more unfortunate that after doing such a great job of maintaining our attention for the first 90% or so, these three randomly selected COP-timed videos all blow it at the end. Their calls to action are, we’d suggest, respectively:
Who’s the audience?
Before we tell you how we reckon See Through could do better, the first question for any filmmaker, advertiser, author or artist, to ask themselves is ‘who’s your audience?’.
As one veteran climate activist, TBLI founder Robert Rubenstein, is fond of saying, there’s no point in shouting in Mandarin at a German speaker. A clear idea of who you’re speaking to gives you clarity on how to address them, and improves your chances of getting them to take the action you want them to take.
The See Through ‘target audience’ taxonomy divides our potential audience into 4 categories, only one of which we focus on:
- Effective activists: they seek to move the maximum number of people to measurably reduce the most CO2e as rapidly as possible via the shortest available route. Our kind of people
- Ineffective activists: tend to lecture rather than tell stories. One of the things that makes them ineffective is seeing ‘raising awareness’, ‘informing’, and ‘educating’ as ends in themselves, rather than as means to the end of measurably reducing carbon
- Unwilling Inactivists: accept the science and reality of human-induced climate change, but feel powerless to do anything about it. This is our Target Audience
- Willing Inactivists: outright climate Deniers and Denialists, who act to obstruct, sabotage, troll, frustrate and retard effective climate action
Why is See Through so keen on Category 3s?
- Quantity: There are loads of them – we reckon about three-quarters of all humans are now Cat. 3
- Quality: Cat. 3s are much easier to move to Cat. 1 than Cat. 2s, because they know they’re not being effective
- Logic: One defining feature of Cat. 2s is spending too much time engaging either with other Cat. 2s or Cat. 4s. The former already agree with them, the latter will likely never agree with them. Unless someone moves from their starting position, any engagement is a waste of time and effort for all concerned. While an apostate is a great evangelist, targeting difficult conversions is an ineffective use of limited resources
At last, a use for the Internal Combustion Engine
The invention of the internal combustion engine catapulted Homo sapiens from a farming ape, to biosphere-changer. While we were unaware of its disastrous greenhouse consequences, the ICE was a great idea, transforming human society, quite literally, by reducing the donkey-work.
We ‘re now saddled with the multi-generational bill for this labour-saving technology. Future generations will be paying it off for the foreseeable future.
The ICE does, however, provide us with a perfect metaphor for distinguishing Cat 2 (Ineffective Activists) from Cat. 1 (Effective Activists).
Imagine the finite amount of human climate activism as a heap of coal.
Ineffective Activists set fire to it, creating a great show of flames and smoke. Bystanders might gain some temporary benefit as they warm their hands, but nearly all the energy disperses into the atmosphere, leaving no lasting impact.
Effective activists, by contrast, build machines – internal combustion engines – before they’d ever consider burning any precious coal. These machines convert the fuel into reliable, predictable output, measured in joules, revolutions per minute, or pounds per inch of pressure.
By converting the energy into focused actions, this mechanism can help create a permanent outcome – an effective result. In this case, measurably reducing carbon. Or even more precisely, carbon drawdown – stopping transferring more carbon from ground to sky, and removing the carbon we’ve already transferred up there by burning fossil fuels.
The unit climate scientists use to measure carbon drawdown is ‘CO2e’, measured in tonnes. CO2e is short for ‘carbon dioxide equivalent sequestered or reduced’. It’s the currency of carbon accounting.
The time for raising awareness, educating, and informing alone, is, unfortunately, long past.
We no longer have the luxury to bring people up to speed, and letting them digest it in their own time, before researching which step they’s like to take next. Raising awareness is not, of course, a bad thing in itself. It’s just that without being linked to measurable CO2e reduction, it’s just warming our hands at the giant coal heap, allowing all that energy to escape, unused on its way to entropy.
To use other mechanical metaphors, it takes a lot of energy to prime the pump, load the gun, hoist the load, or wind the coil. The really hard bit, it seems, is to release that energy effectively. Ineffective climate activists can be very skilled at the setup, but very careless about the punchline.
So long as we continue to dig up and burn our dwindling fossil fuel resources, and for long after we’ve stopped, we can no longer afford to be so profligate with our precious climate action resources.
3 Content-to-CO2e Conversion Engines
Like the comedians ‘translating’ boffin-talk, you may now know how to translate the See Through Goal of:
Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active
In Climate Activist-speak, this means converting the raw material of Unwilling Inactivist eyeballs into the output of measurable carbon reduction.
See Through is developing three different mechanisms to convert Unwilling Inactivist attention into actions that can be measured in tonnes of CO2e.
Once they’re chugging away, seeing how these mechanisms work will be easy. Like a steam engine, all the pistons, connectors, cogs and shafts will be visible, and you can follow the connections from output to fuel, and back.
While the mechanisms are still under construction, it’s harder to see how all the moving parts connect. Here’s our best effort at a blueprint.
It’s our single-slide attempt to explaining the connections between the:
- shiny, public-facing components that suck in Cat. 3 eyeballs at the bottom
- the in-house and third-party platforms that act as sub-assemblies, next up
- the three mechanisms that drive Cat 3s towards Cat 1 status
- the output that will literally be displayed on the website home page as a meter, ticking up each tonne of CO2e See Through can claim to have reduced as a direct result of its activities.
We look forward to the point where we can show, not just tell. It shouldn’t be long, as nearly all the components are now in place. Right now, we’re testing and calibrating the connecting rods.
Sure, it’s a complicated and ambitious mechanism, with many possible points of failure, but the key point is that if it fails, we’ll know precisely and measurably where.
This gives us a chance to fix, improve or optimise each stage in the journey from casual Cat. 3 clickbait victim, to Cat. 1 Willing Activist.
Such are the benefits of setting climate activism specific, measurable outcomes.