Does a business dependent on consumption need to rethink its purpose?
Another Earth Day came and went last week, and we’re no closer to solving some of the environment’s intractable problems. Brands were there with their green-themed social posts to glom onto the occasion, but Mother Nature doesn’t benefit from a feel-good Instagram post. She needs TLC, not CSR.
The fact is, it’s a fact: The climate is changing and our comfortable first-world lifestyles have kicked it into high gear. In America, our military knows it. Our insurance companies know it. Hell, our energy companies, deep down in their coal-fired hearts, know it. The superstorms, the wildfires, the disasters, and the other chaos climate change brings has destabilized cities, war-prone regions, and ecosystems.
While some brands take embrace baby steps to change their ways, the warnings get more and more dire about the state of our planet.
So did advertising and marketing play a role in causing this? Should we play a role in attempts to fix it? Can an industry dedicated to creating desire also promote less of it?
The central conflict is that advertising and marketing are in the business of promoting consumption. New appliances. New clothes. New cars. America is in the business of consumption, FOMO, and planned obsolescence. Our economic health is measured in terms of consumer confidence and consumer spending. Even on Earth Day, most brands broadcast some variation of “Keep consuming! But our stuff is better to consume!”
However, there was a time when the ad industry encouraged us to change our lives for the greater good.
In World War II, advertising agencies were part of the effort to get Americans to conserve food and fuel, buy savings bonds, plant vegetables in our gardens, and remind us through ideas like “Rosie the Riveter” how vital women were to the war effort.
Do we have that power as an industry anymore?
Governments — the ones who apportioned land to build railroads and highways and “put their thumb on the scale” for certain resource-extracting industries — will need to play a key role in reversing the effects of climate change. Which is nearly impossible when so many elected officials can’t admit the severity of the problem or promote a viable solution.
So it’s fallen to advertising agencies, and our clients, to turn up the heat. But our primary solution is to tell people to keep consuming, only differently.
Would the ad industry ever tell consumers to spend less on things they don’t need? To not travel as much? To not upgrade a perfectly good phone every year just to get a new feature? Hell no, the industry wouldn’t, since it threatens our very survival. Incomes of the present always trump the externalities of the future. (By the way, if you’re going throw ‘Patagonia’ at me, save it. Take that niche brand’s $45 t-shirts elsewhere).
We’re good at creating campaigns that hector people into recycling and such, but for the most part, even modest collective sacrifices prove to be beyond our industry’s capability.
Ask yourself, and your company’s management: Would you run the risk of losing an account by not flying to face-to-face client meetings?
Would you let more employees with lengthy commutes work at home at least two days a week?
Would you recommend a product package design that’s completely compostable even if it’s costlier and less glossy than a traditional look?
It seems we have two choices: Do work that convinces the public there is a problem (and a viable solution), or act to convince our bosses and our clients to make the kind of business changes that will help lessen the impact we make on the earth.
The problem is, no one wants to truly lead by example on a grand scale. Our jet-setting colleagues who bitch about airline service on the way to far-flung industry conferences won’t likely cut back. Their Instagram accounts wouldn’t look as sexy.
And no, we don’t to have to quit flying completely and ban K-cups in the office. Trust me, the ad industry is not about to turn Cannes into a virtual webinar.
But the time may be right for agencies to run to the types of clients prepared to deal with our new climate crisis: Manufacturers of solar equipment, compostable supplies, etc. And to show that there’s money to be made by promoting and selling the future of a sustainable planet, not the past that’s put us in crisis mode.
These are not easy choices. If they were, we’d do them. But we’re going to have to adapt and be part of the solution. Otherwise, our business climate could dry up very, very fast.
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.
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