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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Words, but more pictures and music
June 7, 2010 - 10:16pm

Whilst escaping from Chez Rendell this morning, I espied what I thought was the end of a TV commercial put out by the wireless phone industry through its trade group CTIA. And then, as I drove to campus, it entered my mind that the Gulf oil spill calamity, for all its calamitousness, has created a window of advertising opportunity. A chance to influence the way people think about the environment, and the country, and which virtues are important.

Not that the sustainability movement, particularly the environmental wing hereof, hasn't been trying to get the word out. But, in truth, most of what we've said in public to date has ranged from the arrogant to the accusatory to the kin of an 1896 newspaper ad for "an odd line Corset Covers and Bloomers, slightly soiled. Special. 2 for $1." (Have ladies' undergarments ever been offered in a more sexless manner?)

Turns out CTIA has blazed a trail it might behoove sustainability advocates, particularly those of us going out in public, to follow. To tell the truth, many of us have been trying to get the public's attention in a constructive manner. Not that it's an easy thing to do, of course.

Last year's CTIA ad campaign pretty well models what those of us on the cutting edge have been attempting. Two commercial spots ("Grow Your World" and "OK"). The short one works very well. The longer one stresses modern attention spans but makes its point well in the right setting. Both pieces tie the services wireless technology companies offer to the services customers demand and expect -- selling the grand old lie that products and services are developed in response to market demand. I very much wish that we had found a successful way to sell the idea of sustainability as a market-demanded product developed to provide a better present and future for all American consumers.

But the commercial I caught a bit of on my way out of the house this morning (turns out it wasn't just the end -- it was pretty much the whole darn thing) took salesmanship one scoundrelly step farther (patriotism being the last refuge, and all). "Freedom" effectively combines images (visual and auditory) of wireless technology with pictures of children, flags, maps, domestic air travel, soldiers, flags, mountains, baseball, family, Red Cross relief to Haiti, the Status of Liberty, energy efficiency, and flags. It's a masterful piece of manipulation. Entirely upbeat, as opposed to earlier spots which showed folks in challenging situations who actually needed their wireless phones. Emotional. Passively anti-intellectual. It's brilliant and scoundrelly, all at the same time. (Scoundrelish? Scoundrelesque? Scoundrelsome?)

An environmental counterpart of the "Freedom" ad might need to begin with a couple of brief negative images (tarballs washing up on white beach sand, the Upper Big Branch mine entrance blocked off with police tape and MSHA notices), but 13 of its 15 seconds should be upbeat images of windmills, solar arrays, a Tesla roadster, a high tech production line, a hydro dam, organic produce, children, family, the Statue of Liberty (one size fits all), and flags. Lots of flags. Background music, rather than "My country, 'tis of thee . . . " should obviously be "America the Beautiful". Pictures create association, but music creates emotion. Words and numbers -- our tools of choice to date -- create as much resistance as enlightenment. Maybe more.

Is the USA the leader in sustainable energy technology? Not really, and (at the current pace) not even arguably for very long. But think about it -- we're hardly today's leader in cellular phone technology, either. That didn't stand in the way of CTIA (and its advertising agency) creating a brilliant message. And it needn't stand in our way, either.


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