Why is it so difficult to spread environmental messages and even more difficult to get people to act on them?
Co-ordinating large numbers of people is hard. It takes a huge amount of time, money, resource and effort. Corporations are very good at this, so lets look at them. Ultimately the behaviour they want is for you to buy their goods and services. There are a few ways to do this: they can tell what they are selling is good; they can tell you it will make you happy; they can convince you it’s stylish or desirable; or they can repeatedly flash it in front of your face all the time. The latter is most regularly used, but quite often it’s a mix.
Businesses have invaded our lives. Our public spaces with billboards, our homes with computers, televisions and even our commute with radio. On all media channels there are messages from companies competing for your attention; trying to convince you that you really must have what it is that they are selling – and they are unrelenting. But don’t worry, it gets worse. These adverts and messages, asides from being repetitious, are carefully constructed. They start with a goal, like selling product X or service Y; then with an audience, usually anuntapped market. Then they learn about this audience: their language, their symbols, their figureheads, where they spend their time, what they like to watch – and so on. All of this information is expensive to get, but paints a vivid picture of who is being sold to and how to sell to them.
Pretend you are a business: you have your goal, your audience and your research. Now you are equipped to tell a market, in their own terms, that they want your product. You know that if this market uses slang, then your product is ‘awesome’, and your competitors ‘suck’ (terrible examples). If you know these people listen to Justin Bieber, then Bieber needs to sell it – and they need to know that he uses it and he loves it. If they spend their time in shopping centres, then you need to buy billboard space and fill it with trendy photos of a grinning Bieber surrounded by quotes like ‘This product is awesome!’ ; ‘I use it every day!’
Here’s an example:
This is the barebones practice of advertising, marketing and PR.
In addition to the technique of coercive advertising, is convenience. Making people aware of your product and manipulating your audience is only a part of the process; making it easily accessible and convenient is the rest. You will find Coke in pretty much every store everywhere, and in a neatly disposable plastic container. Once you’re done, just chuck it. This is very easy for the customer.
So why can’t environmental businesses produce the same behavioural outcomes as product-selling and service-providing companies? Why can’t we engineer our desired behaviours? It’s because every step of this process is resource, time and money intensive. Many charities and NGOs simply don’t have the staff or the money. Equally, the services and products being sold by these corporates are ones that the public have been taught to want over years of ‘in your face’ advertising. Not only that, but they’re books, films, music, food, technology; many of these items could sell themselves. We’re trying to sell ethics and values; spending extra time and energy doing something good for the environment. Take the plastic problem: is the problem attractive? the answer easy? convenient? Timely? I don’t think so – and neither does the public. Convincing them otherwise is not an easy task.
We as environmental communicators are swimming up-stream against over 100 years of consumerist advertising. Our competitors have engineered this culture, have roots in it and we do not. On top of that we have a hard product to sell in a culture of opposing values. But, slowly environmental issues are becoming topical, controversial and attractive. Alternative media outlets are allowing people to become active consumers, rather than passive ones. We have much more choice over what we consume and how we consume it, and consequently businesses have less influence over how we think. Media that pushed the agenda of sustainable practices offer an alternative perspective to consumerism – one that is mindful of our planets condition, and of our limited resources. And this trend is normalising. It wasn’t that long ago that you were considered an environmental quack for caring about global warming or the rainforests, but today it is increasingly common to hear people talking about it, and more importantly seeing people act on it.
But this is by no means happening quickly.
Elis is a graphic designer, editor and guest writer for The Problem With Plastic.
Inspired by natural history documentary he obtained a degree in TV production and plans to put it to good use. He likes science, philosophy, comedy, art and environmental issues and holds controversial political beliefs. In his spare time he likes to keep fit, keep creative and is always reading (even if it’s click-bait).