Gen Kobayashi
Oct 3, 2023

Why can’t climate change be a laughing matter?

Apple's recent "Mother Nature" spot has shown that eco messaging needn't be worthy or stuffy.

Why can’t climate change be a laughing matter?

I want to start this article with a caveat that its headline may be misleading to a certain extent. I want to make it abundantly clear from the off that I personally take climate change very seriously and I care very much about the state I leave this planet in for my children and their children to come.

But I wanted to broach a subject that has come to light since Apple released its latest ad promoting its sustainability credentials. For anyone that hasn’t seen the spot, entitled “Mother Nature”, I strongly urge you watch it if you have five mins to spare (yes, I said that right, FIVE whole minutes to spare).

It was a piece of content that was so brilliantly executed that I didn’t notice it was five minutes long until the end. The ad masterfully works hard in listing all the major actions Apple has taken in reducing its carbon footprint and all the actions it plans to take in the coming years.

The spot features hurried and nervous Apple execs (including the main man, Tim Cook, himself) convening a sustainability “status meeting” with Mother Nature (amazingly, played by Octavia Spencer), who gives the employees of one of the world’s most valuable brands a verbal grilling about its true credentials as a company that claims to care about the planet.

By the end of the five minutes (yes, five whole minutes) I found myself laughing at the awkwardness of Cook having to defend his company in the face of razor-sharp Mother Nature. But I also found myself feeling invested in and remembering the key components of Apple’s sustainability strategy: total carbon neutrality by 2030, eliminating all plastics by the end of 2024, running the business on 100% clean electricity and all Apple offices being carbon neutral, to name a few. And here’s the kicker, I actually believe it.

Apple’s sustainability actions and pledges aren’t wildly different from those of other major multinationals and neither is it the first brand to communicate its actions.

The difference here is in the manner in which it’s communicated sustainability messages – with levity, wit and charm. Bucking the trend of sincere face-to-camera films from CEOs interspersed with stock footage of wind turbines and waterfalls, Apple treated this spot as an opportunity to use humour to entertain us while tackling a deadly serious subject. 

But why is the use of humour in tackling climate change messages so rare?

Science would tell you there’s merit in the approach of using humour to address serious subjects. We know that humour has a disarming ability to neutralise high-tension situations. Intuitively, we know that there is no better way to “break the ice” than with a joke. 

But it isn’t just intuition that tells us this. There is a physiological effect of humour on us humans, too. When we laugh, we release the hormone oxytocin, and it’s oxytocin that builds a sense of closeness and trust between humans.

It’s the same hormone that is released during sex and childbirth. When someone makes us laugh, we are more likely to trust them. And not just trust them, but remember them – because, when we laugh, we release dopamine into our system and this helps with a deeper focus on longer-term memory retention. 

Humour and memory recall in the context of something as serious as politics was evident in the now famous “salmon joke” made by President Obama in his 2011 State of the Union Address.

Obama made a small joke, 40 minutes into an hour-long speech, that seemed throw away the time. The joke was illustrating the layers of government bureaucracy by using smoked salmon as the punchline.

But, interestingly, NPR ran a survey the next day to gauge what was the most remembered point of Obama’s speech. And yes, you guessed it, it was the salmon.

The evidence pointing to the power of humour to engage and drive memorability plays out when analysing the effect humour has in advertising. 

Kantar’s recent AdReaction study found that humour is the most potent way to engage people in a brand message. Ads that use humour are more expressive (+27 point increase), more involving (+14 points) and more distinct (+11 points) than ads that take a serious tone.

So, while it’s great that we’re starting to see more humorous work being created and celebrated – like Apple’s “RIP Leon” TV spot and Clash of Clans “Clash from the past” (both picking up Grands Prix at Cannes this year) – it’ll be interesting to see if other brands take such an approach to more serious subjects like climate change.

With so much evidence pointing to the efficacy of humour in communications, I really hope we do. Laughter may be one of our most powerful weapons in doing some good.

Gen Kobayashi is EMEA chief strategy officer at Weber Shandwick

Campaign UK

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