Friday, November 4

Grabbing Attention: Spontaneous Combustion

Social media is having a dramatic impact on advertising. And sometimes its influence we could all do without. The newest online video for global climate change is the perfect example. The advertisement was created as a pro bono spot by a New York advertising agency.

The commercial has a lot going for it. It has attention-grabbing special effects. It has a reasonably clever tagline. And, on creative merit alone, it kind of works.

But it doesn't work. 

The commercial is simple enough, showing a man in a business suit, screaming into his cell phone about how he doesn't care about the environment. And slowly, as the spot evolves, he begins to smoke and catch fire until he suffers a fate right out of the paranormal playbook — spontaneous combustion.

Okay, most people will get it. The point of the spot is to target and vilify people who have doubts about global warming and climate change, playing off the pun of "liar, liar, pants on fire."

When considering how to create real positive change in the world, clever doesn't always get the job done. Sure, from a social media perspective, it has some ingredients people chase after. But let's think about what it doesn't have.

• It's a shout down, aiming to vilify as opposed to providing tangible solutions.
• It's political, designed to separate people on a specific point instead of working together.
• It's sharable, but only among people who already believe in climate change.
• It's the wrong message, because climate change doesn't only impact people who don't believe in it.
• It's very much a sleight-of-hand game, driving people to something other than an environmental group.

The spot detracts from environmental groups.

The benefactor of this spot is the William J. Clinton Foundation. The goal of the foundation is to develop sustainable businesses in Rwanda, provide meals to children in Colombia, and spread a unique model of philanthropy around the world. None of those things is bad. They are admirable. And the foundation has made progress in several areas around the world.

Climate change is a very small part of what the organization does, with its emphasis on creating initiatives that lower carbon emissions in some cities. It does not link to the Global Climate Change Initiative, as some have reported. It links to a foundation that links specific businesses to government municipalities. It helps find funding for business partners entering green energy. It provides MRV and project development to deforestation.

There is nothing wrong with any of that per se (with some exceptions that I won't address today). The foundation has done some solid work. And I expect it will continue to do so. At the same time, I cannot help but wonder whether there are better places to support and help fund climate change organizations.

The social impact on advertising detracts. 

The most powerful spot ever created with an environmental message was, without question, the crying Indian for Keep America Beautiful. (And the best non-advertisement was The Lorax.)

When you compare the crying Indian to the combustible spot, it provides a powerful contrast between advertising yesterday and advertising today. The reason the crying Indian spot worked was because it didn't vilify anyone, but showed us something about ourselves that we were ignoring and reminded us that we had a choice. It brought people together. And it didn't even need cleverness to be powerful.

Making a better climate change commercial. 

Politicizing advertising for the benefit of social media sharing sucks. Imagine how much more powerful the advertisement would have been showing us a future world where global warming had an impact, like a kid looking at a Judge Dredd city from across a barren wasteland.

The spot could then circle around from his point of view, center on his eyes, and tap into his collective memory with a collage of ancestral choices that eventually lead to his great-great grandfather (present day) making an environmental choice. With the present day character making a different choice, we can end on a very different world for the boy who appears in the opening of the spot.

The message would be something that brings people together, that neither climate change advocates nor detractors can argue. That message would have to be centered on the idea that climate change — whether mostly natural or manmade — is an invalid argument.

We all know humans contribute to climate change, and we ought not to waste time arguing about the degree to which we are responsible. If we can cut carbon emissions, be more environmentally aware, and take small actions that add up over millions and billions of people, the world would be a better place for us to live regardless.

Now that's a message more people might agree upon, much like they did when they first saw the crying Indian. Quickly clever special effects laden advertising will possibly get more attention. But there comes a point when you have to ask yourself — what good does exposure to the wrong message really do? Exactly.
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