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Mar 29, 2012

An hour to ponder why Fairfax bothers turning off the lights

It surely can’t be long before Fairfax finally tiptoes away from their embarrassing Earth Hour commitment, says David Salter. It's nothing but an advertising con.

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It surely can’t be long before Fairfax finally tiptoes away from their embarrassing Earth Hour commitment. Saturday night’s switch-off might be the last. Not even Bob Brown at his most fatuous would now claim the stunt has any significant environmental benefits.

The whole fandango, if accurately measured, most probably has a bigger carbon footprint than whatever small savings the 60 minutes of “lights out” might deliver. But it’s not the climate science that troubles us so much here as whether such important media outlets as The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald should be involved at all.

What tends to be forgotten — or deftly sidestepped — is that Earth Hour began in 2007 as a promotional campaign for Fairfax dreamed up by an advertising agency, Leo Burnett (the Earth Hour website now describes this genesis as a “partnership with brand co-owners, Fairfax Media”). The basic idea pitched by the advertising “creatives” five years ago was to cloak the Fairfax broadsheet mastheads with the feel-good moral superiority of joining the Good Fight against global warming while adding to paid sales and making an extra little pot of cash from spin-off custom display advertising. To clinch the warm-inner-glow value of their pitch, the World Wildlife Fund was enlisted as a partner, complete with their heart-tugging little Panda Bear logo.

This was the cynical commodification of concern — flattering readers with a false sense of empowerment while hoping to make a fast buck behind their backs. And it worked. Pledges to participate in the empty gesture of turning off the lights for one hour boomed and Fairfax pocketed a tidy profit from a 56-page colour liftout crammed with conscience advertising largely gouged from energy companies greenmailed into buying space. (There’s been no sign of a similar supplement this year, a measure of how much the corporate world has lost interest in buying environmental brownie points.)

Early claims for the effectiveness of the switch-off stunt were shameless. The Age and SMH told their readers Earth Hour would “make a difference” to global warming and might save the world 200 tonnes of carbon emissions. The Murdoch papers were quick to debunk those claims, pointing out the probable total carbon reductions achieved were equivalent to taking six standard-sized cars off the road for a year. Worse followed when Fairfax was forced to concede that the dramatic before-and-during switch off pictures they’d featured on their front pages the morning after Earth Hour had been manipulated.

The organisation itself responded to this bloody nose by abandoning its earlier rhetoric about making a difference. Now, the official line (buried among the FAQs on the website) is: “Earth Hour does not purport to be an energy/carbon reduction exercise, it is a symbolic action. Therefore, we do not engage in the measurement of energy/carbon reduction levels. The campaign has now gone beyond climate change to symbolise the growing global pursuit of a better, healthier world.”

Beyond climate change? Spare me.

Yet Fairfax keeps flogging its dying enviro horse, and the more you dig behind the Earth Hour shopfront the tackier it gets. The website oozes adspeak drivel such as “conserve some of Australia’s most precious threatened species and places” (quite how turning out the lights for an hour saves a “place” is unexplained). There’s even an “adopt an animal” click-through (complete with cute pic of baby tiger Kamrita), and boastful copy about WWF “High Impact Initiatives” including “Market Transformation” and “Climate Change”.

Lamely aping the more prominent charity-based campaigns, Earth Hour now has its own “People’s Award” and celebrity “Ambassadors” — devices clearly designed to attract impressionable youngsters who might believe that sitting around a sandalwood-scented candle for an hour is helping to save the planet. And of course you can’t avoid the key component of any do-gooder website: the “Make a Donation” box.

Then there’s the silliness. The website suggests you “bring your community together to host an acoustic concert or event”, presumably without using any electricity or fossil fuels. The elegant “60” graphical symbol for the campaign has become “60+”, another lame nod to advertising trickery (30+ sunscreen, Vitamins+, etc) but utterly meaningless.

For some strange reason the “hour” begins on the half hour, at 8.30pm. Originally it began an hour earlier. Maybe that’s daylight saving, or the change was made to sync with the common 8.30 programming junction on prime-time TV so that nobody has to miss Sex and The City re-runs on Foxtel. And among the proudly listed Earth Hour “participants” are the Crowne Plaza, Novotel, Mantra, Mercure and Holiday Inn hotel chains, not notably parsimonious when it comes to consuming electricity.

Even more distressing is the ethical issue: a purportedly independent media organisation adopting and endorsing a partisan, activist position. If The Age and SMH continue to devote so much unquestioning time, effort and newsprint to the nonsense of Earth Hour, can we assume their general reporting on climate change is impartial? Meanwhile, it’s a tad difficult to accept the carbon emission credentials of Fairfax while it keeps taking ads for fossil-fuel-swilling luxury cars and 4WDs.

In 1975 the advertising agency for the Malcolm Fraser-led Coalition dreamed up the slogan “Turn on the lights, Australia” for the federal election campaign that followed Whitlam’s dismissal. The unstated message was that Labor’s melodramatic three-year rule had been some sort of antipodean Dark Ages. Now, another ad agency wants us to turn those lights off again. But that’s advertising for you: emotive words, gestures, symbols and images — none of which make any logical sense.

That the best brains at Fairfax should persist with such feeble tosh is an indication of how far the company has strayed from the business of just giving us the news every morning.

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23 comments

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23 thoughts on “An hour to ponder why Fairfax bothers turning off the lights

  1. monkeywrench

    This stupid article gives the misleading impression that Earth Hour is more or less a local event, and a media-driven one at that. It’s a bit bigger than that. The tone of the article is one popular with mainly Right-wing bloggers and commentators: boredom with “naff” concern for the environment. The author should get out of the way while real people try to effect vital change.

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