Josh Bullmore
Apr 12, 2023

Why no-one will read this article on climate change

People turn away from climate change because it has an image problem. The solution? Urgent optimism.

Why no-one will read this article on climate change

What’s on your mind? 

If you’re anything like me, it’ll be something pressing. A deadline. Dinner. A decision you need to make.

That’s how we’re all wired: to tackle the here and now. For millenia humans had to be on the alert to immediate threats, a rival clan or sabre-toothed tiger on the prowl, and scientists tell us that our brains have changed surprisingly little over time.

Consumer culture is of course fine-tuned to exploit this bias, our phones serving up a never-ending stream of alerts that demand our immediate attention and reward it with a small dopamine hit.

Short-termism is similarly endemic in business, where our evolutionary psychology is incentivised by the mechanics of the market. Chief executive officers grapple with the relentlessness of quarterly reporting, chief marketing officers have the reality of ever-shorter tenures breathing down their necks.

That’s all before you throw in a pandemic or a cost of living crisis. Today’s equivalent of sabre-toothed tigers, they are as vivid an imminent threat as any prehistoric predator.

Climate change on the other hand is a threat of a very different kind. It’s the definition of a slow burn. It’s the proverbial slowly heating water that boils the frog.

It also has an image problem. We recently assessed climate change in the same way we assess brands, using our PopIndex, a tool that combines nationally representative quant with ethnography.

What we discovered would have any brand manager waking at night in a cold sweat. It is seen as intimidating, complicated, distant, expensive. For the activist few, not the mainstream many.

So it’s hardly a surprise that so many people and businesses feel they have more pressing issues to attend to than taking radical action on climate change.

This is, of course, something of a problem for our planet.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released the last installment of their eight-year-long climate review, describing it as a “final warning”.

As UN secretary general António Guterres put it: “This report is a clarion call to massively fast-track climate efforts by every country and every sector and on every timeframe. Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

So what part do advertisers have to play?

A few weeks ago we held our latest PopFest, an event to inspire marketers with people tackling climate change across popular culture from the worlds of television, music and beyond.

One of our panellists, Taylor Patterson from the Earthshot Prize, a competition to find and rapidly upscale solutions to the planet’s problems, said that in the face of threats that seem more immediate on the one hand, and climate doom on the other, a new approach to change is required: ‘urgent optimism’.

This phrase captured the imagination of many agency and marketing folk in the audience. Because if you had to describe advertising in two words you could do worse than urgent optimism.

Our superpower is showing the sunny side and encouraging people to reach for it today.

So as an industry we have much to offer the climate crisis. But what’s in it for brands?

The eye-catching answer is this: short-term competitive advantage.

Our PopIndex research reveals that the most successful brands are those seen as both popular and progressive. And how do you demonstrate progressiveness? You guessed it, taking action on climate change is now a powerful shortcut.

Our research also tells us how to communicate: with proximity, power and positioning. Where climate change can feel distant we need to create a sense of vivid proximity.

When people feel overwhelmed, show them they have more power than they realise. And where there can be suspicion about a brand’s motives, sustainability needs to be baked into your positioning, not bolted on.

So we know that it’s the smart thing to do commercially and we know how to communicate. Last, but not least, we need something to talk about.

This is where agencies themselves need to channel some urgent optimism. Showing marketers that this is a powerful way to build their brand today.

Helping CMOs work with their CEOs and boards to develop compellingly sustainable products to sell, stories to tell, and behaviours to encourage.

A shot of urgent optimism is frankly what we all need. To jolt us out of our inertia and put a confident zing, spring and pep into our sustainability step. And if we need focus for our efforts then the Ad Net Zero action plan and #changethebrief are a great place to start.

With urgent optimism we might just be able to deliver a galvanising, game-changing flip in how climate change is seen in our agencies, the boardroom and out in the world: from a problem to be left to tomorrow, to an opportunity to be grasped today.

 Josh Bullmore is chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett UK

Campaign UK

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