Let’s Run “Global Frying” Up the Flagpole…

Back in 1990, when I worked for Mayor Bradley on environmental issues, I attended a Sierra Club press conference where several celebrities introduced public-service announcements in which they would be featured talking about global warming. It was the first TV campaign around the issue, so it was significant — even though I never actually saw any of the PSAs run on the air.

daniel j travanti bearded.jpgOne of the performers was Daniel J. Travanti, star of one of my favorite TV shows, “Hill Street Blues.” He wore a heavy beard, and looked more like Grizzly Adams than Capt. Furillo. He decried the public’s seeming lack of concern about a problem that threatens to make heavily populated parts of the earth uninhabitable. “Maybe we should call it ‘global frying,'” Travanti suggested.

Sixteen years on, here’s out-of-the-box marketing thinker Seth Godin elaborating on the same point:

Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places.

How can “global warming” be bad?

I’m not being facetious. If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

Environmental educators, scientists and activists have so far failed to overcome the invisibility of the global warming issue to people who “don’t see your coal being burned…(and) don’t live near a glacier,” Godin said. There are universal principles for marketing new ideas that the environmental community should deploy:

Human beings want:
totems and icons
meters (put a real-time mpg or co2 meter in every car and watch what happens)
fashion
stories
and
pictures

95% of the new ideas that don’t spread–even though their founders and fans believe they should–fail because of the list above.

Does this mean future generations will let us off the hook for doing so little about global warming? I’m not sure the lack of persuasive totems and icons will exonerate us.

Great marketing minds and designers ought to pick up Godin’s challenge. Maybe one of the major schools of design could team up with an environmental foundation to sponsor a design competition to make the invisible more visible. Not just more ads; constant reminders designed into our products. Meanwhile, PR people who supposedly know how to tell an arresting story should dig into the scientific literature and find ways to make more vivid the kind of world that global warming will bring us.

But remember: Be credible. No more “Day After Tomorrow” horror shows that only cause backlash. If you can only sell the global warming story through exaggeration, you discredit the whole idea.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Run “Global Frying” Up the Flagpole…

  1. Among the many things that bother me about this issue is that the current administration deemed Iraq to be a significant enough threat that they should be bombed into submission, based (allegedly) upon “proof” that Hussein possessed WOMD. As it turns out, he evidently did not possess WOMD, which (to my mind at least) casts doubt upon the credibility of the “proof”.

    But shift gears to another threat, that of global warming (or “Pollution death”, if you will), which has the potential to cause significantly more damage than Hussein ever could. Despite the ever-increasing mountain of evidence to support the existence of this threat, Bush et al. continue to ignore it and call for more research.

    Why was the threat of Iraq (relatively small, and based on flimsy evidence) considered so great that the “right” thing to do was go kill a bunch of people, whereas the threat of Pollution death (relatively large, based on a lot of “scientific” evidence) is considered so nominal?

  2. D4P,
    The way I’d answer your question refers back to the original post. The public has not demanded action on global warming. When the Kyoto accord was signed, the Senate voted something like 99-1 on a resolution opposing it, and so Clinton never submitted it for approval. Where was the outcry? Bush’s inaction on this issue is rarely covered in the news media, and particularly not on television. Polls consistently show the environment very low on the list of issues the public cares about, way behind terrorism, the economy, education, health care, and government ethics. The environmental groups’ communication approach is, to say the least, outdated. They strike me as mostly focused on raising issues that raise them money. Bloggers who cover global warming and environmental issues generally are few and far between, and most of them are pretty dull, and/or preaching to the choir. So we’re left with scientists, who are by nature unorganized, apolitical, and unaggressive.

    This country — and really this applies to all countries, we don’t need to feel especially ashamed — has zero track record of looking at long-term issues effectively. Whether you’re talking about things like Social Security, investment in infrastructure or long-term environmental threats, there is tendency to kick the can down to the next administration. Even terrorism. (Alert, I’m probably well to the right of you on this one issue.) The jihad was declared in 1979. There were a number of significant attacks on American and allied interests throughout the 80s and 90s. Richard Clarke begged Clinton and then Bush to focus on Al Queda. But they didn’t want to pay the political costs of doing something proactive. Then 9/11 happened. We’re still playing catch-up. Homeland Security is a mess. The ease with which someone could blow up passengers at LAX is shocking.

    Hence my post. We have to approach this issue differently, or else the problem will continue to get worse.

  3. If you think about it, governments (speaking of the US govt, since I live here and don’t know as much about what others have done) haven’t been totally ineffective when it comes to environmental problems. As I understand it, there are more trees in North America now than there ever were. Air quality is generally better than it was 30 years ago, and we’re learning more about it all the time. Bays, lakes, watersheds and marshes are probably better protected now than ever. While bureaucracy and venality surely eat up about 80 percent of investment in environmental protection, the other 20 percent seems to be effectively applied.
    Global warming suffers as a “focus” not just because the language is fuzzy: it seems like a very complex problem, harder to define than all previous environmental problems. It’s almost as if we need a different mental model to understand this one because it’s a bigger, more abstract issue than something like water or air quality. The environmentalist vocabulary of the past may be inadequate.
    We need a Carl Sagan to really explain it to us in a meaningful way. And then we’ll have to figure out which parts of the problem government can effectively solve. Unless there’s some organizational genius out there who can tranlate this abstract problem into bureaucratic effectiveness, govt won’t be able to solve the whole problem. If it tries, it’ll just waste a lot of money and time.

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