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Tess Alps: We can't confront climate change without advertising

16 Jan 2020  |  Tess Alps 
Tess Alps: We can't confront climate change without advertising

Good advertising delivers emotional rewards, writes Tess Alps - and we’re going to need them if we’re to start paying more and consuming less

I’m worried about Dominic Mills - because he’s worried.  In a recent column, he says he is anxious about the possibility of the ad industry developing a ‘Messiah Complex’.  Two things to say: a) I can put his mind at rest because we’re really not, and b) chance would be a fine thing. In fact, I’m tempted to add ‘we’re not Messiahs, we’re very, very naughty boys (and girls)’.  

The various naughtinesses we’ve been indulging in have manifested themselves in shockingly low levels of trust for advertising.  If you need reminding, just read the Credos research.

So, I’m more inclined to cheer than fret when adland aspires to make the world a better place.  The most immediate way to do this is for brands to keep funding responsible media; the ones which tell the truth and keep the electorate properly informed so that they can reliably choose a government whose job it is to undertake many of the actions needed.  And brands should invest in media which promote a tolerant and civil society.

We should definitely stop funding hate - but Dominic’s specific topic was how can adland possibly address the climate crisis when it exists to promote consumption.  How can we, as one adland watching Twitter account has put it, stop funding heat?

Advertising is a potent tool that supports business, but it also supports charity and other not for profit messages.  A bit like a book, you can use advertising to do good or bad.  It’s our choice.

At its most basic, advertising presents people with choices.  As businesses adapt their products in response to the climate crisis - maybe even be forced to do so by governments - advertising will be there to let them know about the sustainable energy company or the electric car or the carbon-neutral airline. 

There are already many famous campaigns from the last decade, like Ariel’s ‘Turn to 30°’ or the launch of Ovo Energy, which have enabled people to make a more environment-friendly choice.  I’m sure we’ll see plenty of exaggerated claims but the ASA will be there to guard against green-washing, as it is already doing; see the latest case here.

Presenting people with better choices is a crucial role for advertising, but it can do more than that.  Famously, good advertising delivers emotional rewards.   And we’re going to need them if we’re going to be paying more and consuming less. 

The emotional value that advertising confers on brands makes us feel fabulous when we pay £50 for a small pot of luxury brand face cream compared to £10 for a big pot of a face cream that is rationally not much different.  If it can do that, it can make us feel great when we swap our gas-guzzling cars for a hybrid and swap our Caribbean holiday for the Lake District. 

Advertising can make us happy to pay more for companies who are producing products and packaging in a carbon-neutral manner.  In fact, I’m not sure we can confront the need to consume less without advertising.

I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘virtue-signalling’ or other ways of belittling what are mostly genuine attempts to do better as cynical PR exercises.  But ‘virtue-doing’ is preferable to signalling. ‘Virtue-doing’, like all ethical decisions, is going to involve sacrifices. 

We will have to say no more often; no to clients who pollute the planet, no to media which enable untruths about the climate to spread, no to agencies whose working practices promote waste.

The climate crisis does not mean the end of capitalism or business or advertising.  But it should mean the end of irresponsible capitalism, business and advertising and I, for one, can’t wait.


Tess Alps is chair of Thinkbox and a recipient of the Mackintosh Medal for outstanding personal and public service to advertising

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26 Feb 2020 

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