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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. Frank Campbell

    How rare this is on Crikey (or anywhere)- deft, swingeing critique.

    An example of what Crikey might do if it weren’t suffocated by shallow partisanship and political correctitude…

    This the second or third straw in the wind on this site- blown I think by the belated realisation that progressive politics is hemorrhaging (Qld vote) -and that climate millenarianism is expiring. Not unconnected processes…

  2. Generic Person

    Luxury cars and 4WDs are in many cases more fuel efficient than ‘non-luxury’ alternatives, but this is Crikey. Class warfare is the norm.

  3. Bob the builder

    Earth Hour – the real-world equivalent of a facebook petition.

  4. Michael

    @FRANK CAMPBELL

    Here here Frank!!
    Here here Dave Salter!!
    After all these years of entering this dirty, greasy little Crikey site and washing thoroughly after exiting, at last, a sensible newsworthy, informative, unbiased article.
    For those of us who pay our Crikey dues only to keep track of the luntics in the “coocoo’s nest” this is quite a moment.

  5. gapot

    Everybody has to make a buck, we all know that the real problem is the government telling lies. If the GMH gift were about anything they would stop making big cars and stop the tax breaks for leased cars, which would be 10 times more effective than earth hour.

  6. Sean Doyle

    What’s wrong? Is Salter worried that he won’t get enough readers for this piece due to the News Ltd. paywall? Very charitable of Crikey to inflict his article on their paying subscribers too so. Although perhaps in future, Crikey will read a submission all the way to the end and follow Salter’s suggestion of fellow media company Fairgax by giving us the news and analysis we subscribers have paid for rather than the Boltesque drivel printed above.

  7. Neil Walker

    Agreed. Earth Hour is and always has been a bit of a farce.

    Earth Hour is indeed nothing more than an advertising agency devised promo campaign to make all concerned look and feel good about themselves.

    It’s the Gruen effect. I enjoy watching The Gruen Transfer to gain some insight into how advertisers work but the biggest sales pitch they make is trying to portray themselves as the good guys rather than just people who try to sell us stuff.

    Leo Burnett CEO Todd Sampson ‘is the co-creator of the Earth Hour initiative, which has been recognised as one the best ideas in the world’ apparently. http://www.icmi.com.au/speaker/business-speakers/todd-sampson

    Really?!!

  8. MarkWW

    That’s one hell of a ‘cranky old man’ rant. So cranky it’s almost cute.
    Maybe Crikey should allocate a special place for COMs and their ranting.

  9. mrsynik

    We’ve missed you Mr Salter. Please return to the MW fold with Mr Littlemore asap.

  10. Edward James

    I did not get it ! Edward James

  11. andrew

    While many points may be factually correct, the very emotive language turns me off. Perhaps if one is to criticise for being emotive etc, it would make a stronger argument if you were not doing the same. I hope you feel better for having got that off your chest though. perhaps time for a lie down.

  12. Tom McLoughlin

    Oh right, next you will be telling us Clean Up Australia sponsored by banks and fast food chains, has the community doing the work on public lands THAT COUNCIL WORKERS ARE PAID TO DO BY RATEPAYERS FOR THE OTHER 364 DAYS OF THE YEAR, and therefore simply a method of saving council’s budget with some willing slave labour for a day?

    But that would be cranky and churlish, so best not said.

  13. AJH

    The article makes some good arguments. Really, participating in Earth Hour is no more useful than signing an online petition.

    However, it does have a purpose. It demonstrates that any environmental challenges need to be attacked in a collective fashion. We can send a city dark if we all switch off our lights, just as we can reduce our collective carbon emissions if we all take individual action.

    The risk is that people just switch off their lights for an hour, then think they have done their bit for the planet for the year. In the effort to hype up the event, the reality that it is just a gesture, not a solution does get a little bit lost.

  14. Bob the builder

    I think it’s actually counter-productive. People have a smug sense of having ‘done something’ and in consequence actually do less in the rest of their lives.
    However, gimmicky collective action created by marketing types shouldn’t discredit all collective action. My experience of things like Reclaim the streets and Critical Mass in the ’90s was fundamentally empowering and helped confirm and strengthen many people’s environmental choices in fundamental ways.

  15. Salamander

    Since when was supporting mainstream science “endorsing a partisan, activist position”? What a furphy. The article is a misguided rant.

  16. Rich Uncle Skeleton

    This the second or third straw in the wind on this site- blown I think by the belated realisation that progressive politics is hemorrhaging (Qld vote) -and that climate millenarianism is expiring.

    Yes, Frank. Denying AGW and criticising a pointless and hypocritical commerical media event are exactly the same thing. Just intellectual vacuity we’ve come to expect from you.

  17. Edward James

    At slim bones how about you write something which none of us could identify as vacuious. Did I spell that correctly Rich Uncle? Edward James

  18. Rich Uncle Skeleton

    No

  19. Edward James

    Oh OK then Slim Bones fair enough. I wonder if while they are on the way out Fairfax could hook into a local story and giveit some oxygen? Five dead! Council misled State Coroner. Edward James 0243419140 Emm Probably not therte are rules we know. But there you go it is out there!

  20. 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.

  21. 2perdean

    Of course Earth Hour is doing nothing ‘directly’ for the planet. It may have been made for the wrong reasons. If we should stop it for that, then we should stop the Olympic Games! Because the Nazis’ introduced a lot of activities to show their supremacy. i.e. the torch relay.

  22. 2dogs

    I do agree with AJH the event in itself is symbolic, the event itself is not going to make a real difference in the consumption of power however that is not what I see as the purpose of Earth Hour. It is, in my mind, raising awareness just like Clean Up Australia and Movember. Is it not amusing that it would be sacrilege to apply some of the same statements to either of those two events (“it is a wanky, feel good stunt that does little” or “its counter productive and gimmicky”).

  23. fractious

    As far as I can see, Salter’s piece is not much more than a petty whinge about Fairfax media’s support of a symbolic gesture. If this is typical of Mr Salter’s pervious output, I am bemused by how much some commenters here have missed Salter’s views, while remaining convinced that the rest of us Crikey readers haven’t missed much of any consequence. Why Crikey thinks this diatribe about something of almost no consequence merits promotion on its front page I can only surmise.

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