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October 2, 2007
A Carbon-Neutral Pile of Manure

Ordinarily, I might take environmental problems seriously, but lately, I can’t. Because the only people imploring me to are advertisers.

Every marketer, it seems, wants to prove how “green” they are. As usual, our industry just follows the herd. And because of the eco-awakening, we’re now lecturing consumers that they need to be “green,” too.

How? By buying more stuff.

In Georgia, for example, the state is promoting environmental awareness via an “Energy Star” tax-free weekend. People are getting a sales tax break when they buy new energy-efficient refrigerators, dryers, etc. In other words, we have to consume more in order to consume less, throwing away perfectly good appliances in the process.

Is consumption always the best answer to the our problems? Is advertising the best voice of reason?

I’m not old, comparatively speaking, but at a certain point I recognize when I’ve lived through a particular cycle in the pop culture. And environmental awareness, yes, I’ve lived through this before. In the late 80’s, Earth Day got hip again. We banned CFC’s from hair spray and Styrofoam boxes from McDonald’s because of a hole in the ozone layer. We started recycling newspapers and plastic, thinking we were saving the planet. That lasted a couple of years, then the Ford Explorer came out. Concern about CFC’s gave way to a feeding frenzy for SUV’s.

Ironically, all this greenwashing is a result of how wildly successful advertising and marketing is. Ad agencies came into their own in post-WWII America, where our industry routinely sold a dream of suburbia: shiny chrome-infused cars, vinyl siding, shag carpeting and frost-free refrigerators.

Comfortably ensconced in our air-conditioned lifestyle, our massive consumption has put a undue strain on the world’s resources. But now, other countries who have fed our largesse (think China, India, etc) want a piece of our energy-thirsty lifestyle for their own. And that’s compounding the problem.

So now global warming and fate of the planet is on our front burner, and as consumers we’ll do almost anything to show we care. In lieu of a real change in the way we live, our clients are more than willing to hire us to sell the solution. And what's really perverse is that brands are charging a premium for the privilege of feeling good about helping the environment. Brands like Method cleaning products or beauty products from The Body Shop cost significantly more than other brands, and organic produce commands a higher price than conventionally grown. Frankly, many families whose budgets are stretched to the breaking point can’t afford to buy green when price is their primary motivating factor. Which is a shame—even if families want to make a difference, they can’t afford to and we make them feel worse for that shortcoming.

The ultimate load of environmentally-fueled nonsense, however, is coming via good ol’ corporate brand-polishing TV spots for companies who have spotty histories. It’s hard for me to believe that global monoliths like Chevron, BP, Dow and GE are going to lead the environmental awareness revolution, despite their multi-million ad campaigns dedicated to concepts like “ecohumanology” or whatever they’re calling it this week. But agencies, many of them good ones, are perfectly content to shovel this compost on the public.

It’s hard not to view all this greenwashing with a jaundiced eye. But maybe there’s a solution.

I’d love it if the advertising business was more environmentally-friendly. And I know just where to start. I’m sick of clients that demand rounds and rounds of pointless changes to their work---changes that require more printouts, more mockups, more electricity for the computers, and more gasoline to drive to and from client meetings. How about we cut out all the layers of client approvals and the mass quantities of comp materials needed for those presentations?

Of course, I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen. Because the ad industry never takes its own advice. We’ll save the real action for someone else. We’re into empty gestures. Which is why I’m thinking about purchasing a carbon offset for the electricity I’ve used writing this column. Maybe I’ll go plant a tree. But since there’s a total watering ban where I live due to a record-breaking drought, it’ll likely die.

Hey, it’s the groupthought that counts, right?

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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