Erin Lyons: It’s time for the ad industry to address climate change

The ad industry has a responsibly to educate consumers on climate change but must avoid ‘greenwashing’ people or risk damaging their reputation for good.

2016: Don’t panic.
2017: Don’t panic.
2018: Don’t panic.
2019: OKAY, PANIC.

Melting icebergs, unforgiving forest fires, amplified air pollution, that unbearably disturbing ‘walrus scene’ from Netflix’s Our Planet (trust me, it cannot be unseen)… it’s clear, climate change is a real threat.

Almost half (42%) of Brits say climate change is their number one environmental concern, according to a survey by Ipsos Mori. It’s also the top concern globally, with 37% of the world’s population listing it as their main environmental burden and one that should receive the greatest attention from government.

At some level the government is listening. In the UK, Labour has moved the climate crisis up its ‘panic list’ by pledging to make it a “core” part of the curriculum for children at primary school.

But that isn’t enough. There is still a lot of misunderstanding and antipathy around climate change so it needs influential organisations to begin better explaining the issue and what needs doing in order to trigger change.

If only we could think of an industry that has the power to shift public perceptions…

There have already been calls for TV broadcasters to do more to tackle the issue. BAFTA analysed a year’s worth of subtitles from 40 UK TV channels and found references to climate changed were made about as often as zombies.

Now, the Extinction Rebellion is calling on the ad industry to step up to the mark as well. In a public letter, the environmental group demands advertising “tell the truth about the climate and environmental emergency” suggesting that if it doesn’t “make this change, consumers will insist you do”.

There is evidence to back this up too. Public concern about climate change is already prompting consumers to swap brands, with 36% of respondents to a survey by consultancy Kin&Co saying they’ve switched to more sustainable products and 13% of millennials are considering leaving their current employer to work somewhere that is doing more to tackle climate change.

Plus, 59% of respondents want their favourite brands to declare a climate emergency, yet 90% of businesses don’t have a clear plan in place to address climate change.

Volvo’s children’s book, ‘The Day the Ocean Went Away’.

So can brands use their power to inspire a shift in public attitudes and be part of the solution?

Short answer: absolutely.

Long answer: absolutely, but they’re going to have to pledge a commitment to addressing climate change while ensuring any plans align with their long-term strategies. And that’s not an easy task.

Unfortunately this isn’t just a simple case of sticking a green logo on an ad campaign. Brands need to start talking about the issue more but first they need to get their own houses in order. Advertising and comms have to align with business strategy or brands will be accused of being inauthentic or cashing in on environmental conflicts.

There is also a fine line to tread between raising awareness and understanding of an issue, and preaching at consumers. There’s no point shoving hard facts or statistics in consumers’ faces – leave that to the soothing words of David Attenborough and the team behind the scenes at Our Planet – or shouting about environmental credentials and overwhelming people with visions of impending doom. They will quickly lose interest.

There are brands already bringing the issue up their agenda. Last year Volvo published a children’s book ‘The Day the Ocean Went Away’ that told the story of a young boy named Jack who is passionate about the ocean but wakes one morning to find it has disappeared.

Simple. Poignant. Educative. And it is part of wider initiatives by Volvo to fight plastic pollution and improve sustainability in the car industry (which is always under scrutiny for being one of the major contributors to climate change). For instance, Volvo has pledged that 25% of the plastic used in every newly launched car will be made from recycled material from 2025.

Compare that to a marketing gimmick from Lacoste, which last year swapped its trademark crocodile logo for 10 limited-edition polo shirts featuring a different endangered species. A great idea that generated a wealth of media interest, until consumers picked up on the fact the fashion house sells gloves made from deer leather online.

Brands that want to enter the climate change conversation must also be open to the possibility of failure, backlash and accusations of inauthenticity. Consumers want brands to take a stand on issues, but they might not believe them when they do, so they must be prepared to match their commitment to addressing climate change with their wider strategy or risk damaging their reputation for good.

It’s a fiery issue (literally) subject to conflicting opinions and one entered with a robust plan and caution. But the future of this earth is worth more than just a marketing ploy.

At the end of the day there’s no time to waste when we only have until 2030 to potentially stem catastrophic climate change, according to the UN.

Time for marketers to play their part.

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Comments
  • Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 30 May 2019 at 1:03 pm

    Remember that permission to market your brand and permission to market about climate change are two different things and need different consents.

  • Richard Fullerton 12 Jun 2019 at 7:55 am

    Marketing and brands should deal in facts and not parrot unchallenged claims without proper scrutiny, or presenting the alternative argument from those who do not agree with the scientific consensus. In addition it should not conflate general pollution (noxious gases, plastic, waste) with climate change – totally separate issues.

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