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Apr 8, 2014

From the brains behind Rhonda and Kevin07, how to sell climate change

Many Australians do not believe the scientists on climate change. We've asked some of the country's brightest advertising brains how to sell the message to a sceptical public.

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Fires, heatwaves, megastorms — you know the (apocalyptic) drill on climate change. But what if the message was flipped on its head? What if climate change was reframed to be a positive story about humans learning to live in a cleaner way for the benefit of our kids and grandkids?

Despite a slew of scientific reports showing that humans are affecting the climate — the most recent being last week’s IPCC report — Australians are not convinced. As Crikey has pointed out, fewer than 50% think human-induced climate change is happening. That number has flatlined. The public doesn’t seem to be listening.

So Crikey is asking experts in communications and political strategy how to sell the message on climate change. Last week we asked those who are not convinced climate change is real to get inside the sceptics’ heads (an experiment judged heretical by some environmentally minded readers). This week we’ve opened up the question to communications guns who’ve successfully sold tricky products like car insurance and Kevin Rudd …

Brendon Guthrie, executive creative director at ad agency Ogilvy Melbourne, worked on AAMI’s “Rhonda” ads:

Guthrie knows a thing or two about winning over the public; he’s worked on the popular car insurance ads that show hapless Rhonda falling for Balinese hunk Ketut (the ads have more than 700,000 hits on YouTube). And he thinks the branding is all wrong on climate change.

He says advocates have made climate change about catastrophe, a tricky message in a country with an extreme climate. They’ve also used semi-religious language about “deniers”, etc. This has put people off, Guthrie told Crikey. “Climate change is a brand with which the public has fallen out of love … Climate change is a frog in a slowly warming pot of water, not a catastrophe. So stop trying to sell it as if it is. It’s obvious most people no longer believe you.”

This is how Guthrie would sell climate change: “It’s time for positive campaigning. Sell the advantages of action on climate change, rather than the apocalyptic consequences of inaction … Put the case that whatever’s happening up in the atmosphere, enacting legislation to reduce carbon emissions and investing in renewable energy down here will produce a dividend in the form of a cleaner and more liveable world. That’s easy to understand.”

He says humans don’t necessarily respond well to messages which are about the future, e.g. warnings of environmental disasters. “Most of us are not great scientists, philosophers or artists,” he said. “The future is something that happens to us, not something we consciously shape. Therefore, our main concern will always be for our own welfare, and that of those we love, in the here and now.”

Neil Lawrence, CEO of communications firm Lawrence Creative Strategy, created the Kevin07 campaign:

Climate sceptics have succeeded because they’ve exploited humans’ resistance to change, says Lawrence, the brains behind the brilliant Kevin07 campaign, which ushered Kevin Rudd into The Lodge. “It just lines up with human desire to not want to believe that we’re heading for disaster.”

Lawrence thinks climate messaging went wrong when Labor made it about the “big polluters”, letting individuals off the hook (there’s plenty of compensation for voters in the carbon tax). “I thought that was terrible,” Lawrence said. Rather, the solution should be presented as inclusive; “there’s got to be a collective thought of we are all in this, and everyone has something to contribute.”

As to how Lawrence would sell climate change, he says it’s the most complex communications challenge he’s looked at and it might not be possible to change people’s minds in the short term. Lawrence adds that most of the terrible effects of climate change are in the future, and humans are not imaginative at projecting into the future.

This is how he’d try to sell it. He’d find new spokespeople; “I’ve seen people pay attention to less predictable voices on this.” Instead of rolling out an academic or activist, roll out firefighters.

He also points to the generational reality that older people are more sceptical about climate change, as shown by Bernard Keane further down in Crikey today. Lawrence suggests focusing on the under-35s. Harness their “burning anger” about climate to raise the temperature of the debate. Young people have the most at stake and can amplify the issue.

Jane Caro, communications consultant and advertising lecturer:

Caro reckons humans make decisions emotionally, then rationalise them afterwards. Facts do not change people’s behaviour. “Only emotions change behaviour, and only two of them do that: hope and fear,” she told Crikey. “All successful marketing leverages both.”

So if you want to sell deodorant, create fear — of the social humiliation from body odour — then create hope of smelling nice. “Climate change is no different,” Caro added.

Scientists must find ways to sell fear on climate change, to convince us there is a problem — and Caro thinks they have done quite a good job. But “what they have failed to do is sell us some solutions and so increase our hopes”. Simple, practical solutions to climate change must be found and pitched to the public.

Adam Ferrier, co-founded Naked Communications, worked for Coke and Unilever, now at creative agency Cummins & Partners:

“Scientists should be banned from talking about their results — ever,” Ferrier told Crikey. “Even the best of them make remarkable information sound bland. Why? Because humans don’t care about information — they never have.”

The best way to change mass behaviour is “crappy reality TV”, according to Ferrier (he points to this campaign on how to engage on the environment). “Look what Bondi Rescue did for surf club enrolments, what The Block has done for the home renovation industry, and what MasterChef has done for the sales of wagyu beef. You see, we like to be entertained, and we like to do what everyone else is doing (including you, dear reader, no matter how individualistic you’d like to think you are).”

Companies such as Shine, Zapruder Cordell Jigsaw and Endemol Southern Star should be pitching to commercial TV networks that “green will rate”. Ferrier suggests “an extremely compelling reality TV series where you have lovable winners and lots of losers battling it out to save the environment”.

*Ferrier’s book The Advertising Effect: how to change behaviour is published by Oxford next month

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