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Does blurring the line between activism and advertising benefit the environment?

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Can Mad Men’s Don Draper save the planet?

April 12th, 2013

by Ben Whitford

You won’t catch Mad Men's Don Draper hugging trees — but experts say the ad man’s modern heirs on Madison Avenue could have a crucial role to play in bringing environmentalism firmly into mainstream consumerism. Ben Whitford reports.

Don’t buy what you don’t need

If shopping is America’s national religion, then asking consumers to put their wallets away on Black Friday is pretty close to heresy.  But that’s exactly what outdoor-apparel company Patagonia did in 2011, though, taking out a full page ad in the New York Times that implored shoppers not to buy its top-selling R2 fleece jacket.

Mindless consumption, even of a part-recycled and recyclable jacket such as the R2, is bad for the planet, the ad warned. “As is true of all the things we can make … this jacket comes with an environmental cost higher than its price,” it cautioned. “Don’t buy what you don’t need.”

There cannot be too many companies that would willingly dedicate their ad budgets to asking customers not to buy their products. Still, experts say that similar campaigns, with a focus less on selling and more on persuading consumers to behave more sustainably, are becoming more commonplace.

Unilever, for instance, is nudging Brits to recycle some of the 20 million PG Tips teabags they discard each day. Origins, the skincare brand, holds events at which consumers make “Earth Pledges” promising to take shorter showers, to eat organic food or to cycle to work.

And even car-makers are getting in on the act with Toyota, for instance, creating a smartphone app that displays a virtual glass of water; if drivers accelerate and brake gently enough to avoid spills, they can boost their gas mileage by around 10%. 

Such campaigns are the thin end of a wedge that could become crucial to the ‘mainstreaming’ of the environmental movement in years to come, says Ogilvy Earth strategy chief Freya Williams. According to Williams’ research, more than 8 out of 10 American and British consumers say they want to live sustainably, but just 16% are taking concrete action to reduce their environmental impact. 

That leaves about two thirds of consumers in the “green gap” — theoretically concerned about the environment, but doing little to reduce their own footprint. And that, Williams says, is where the marketers come in.

Advertising professionals make their living convincing people to act on their desires — and the same dark arts that Don Draper uses to sell Lucky Strikes can potentially be used to convince people not just to buy greener products, but also to embrace greener behaviours and lifestyles. “Marketers have this great skill: they know how to get a specific target audience to want to do a specific thing,” Williams says. “They can use that for good — to save the world, to change behaviour.” 

That’s long been Patagonia’s philosophy, says Vincent Stanley, the company’s vice president of marketing. Back in 1972, Patagonia was chiefly a climbing-supplies company, with 70% of its revenues coming from selling pitons — the spikes climbers use to anchor themselves to rock-faces. But as climbing found a wider following, it became clear that the spikes were chipping away at the rocks, causing irreversible damage. 

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, himself an avid climber, found a greener alternative known as chocks — a rock-friendly anchor-system popular with British climbers — and ran an essay in that year’s Patagonia catalogue asking his customers to make the more environmentally-friendly switch. Chouinard’s evangelism is credited with leading U.S. climbers to give up their pitons, which these days are seldom used on either side of the Atlantic, and chocks soon took pitons’ place as Patagonia’s biggest seller. 

That early success gave Patagonia the confidence to keep asking its customers to make greener choices, Stanley says, whether by switching to expensive organic cotton or by suggesting that customers repair their Patagonia clothing rather than simply buying new items.

Better still: Patagonia’s advocacy for behaviour change meshes perfectly with its identity as an outdoor brand, helping it to differentiate itself from rivals, strengthen its brand, and emphasise the uncompromising quality of its apparel. “There are all kinds of gains to be made from doing the right thing environmentally and socially,” Stanley says.

That’s certainly proven true for Patagonia, which had bumper sales in the year after its Black Friday campaign, notes Adam Werbach, a former Sierra Club president who blurred the line between activism and the ad business when he helped found Saatchi & Saatchi’s green-marketing division.

In fact, most behaviour-related advertisements are “classical branding campaigns” designed to boost sales or burnish reputations while sidestepping consumer cynicism about greenwashing, Werbach explains. Not that that’s a bad thing — consumers understand that companies want to sell their products, and campaigns that fail to deliver bottom-line benefits are seldom sustained for long enough to make a difference. “The ones that are altruistic are terrible,” Werbach says. “They rapidly lose support in the organisation, and then they die.”

One agency that’s helping brands strike a balance between sustainability and self-promotion is the Shelton Group, a Tennessee-based firm that in 2011 created a series of water-conservation PSAs in partnership with brands including Procter & Gamble and Bosch.

The campaign’s video spots focused on a character called “Rip the Drip” — a pasty, bulging-eyed weirdo who pops up behind people and makes unsettling comments when they run half-empty dishwashers or leave the water running while they brush their teeth.

The aim, says Shelton Group president Adam Kustin, was to forgo preaching or political debate about water use, and instead simply to condition people to feel slightly dirty whenever they turned on a tap.  “Social psychologists will tell you until the cows come home that education alone isn’t typically enough to inspire behaviour change,” he explains. “We needed … to make it uncomfortable for consumers if they found themselves wasting water.” 

The strategy worked: 29% of people who viewed the ad said they’d changed their water-usage habits as a result, Kustin says. Now the Shelton Group is finalising sponsorship deals for two new campaigns focusing on food waste and recycling, and Kustin says they’re determined to keep seeking ways to leverage branding and marketing techniques to nudge consumers towards more sustainable lifestyles. “Getting people to adopt new autonomous behaviour … is really the Holy Grail” for greens and green marketers alike, he says. 

Still, it’s never easy to convince people to change their habits — or to develop memorable campaigns that are simultaneously effective, credible, and capable of delivering value to the brands that bankroll them. “You can’t just snap your fingers and become Patagonia,” Kustin sighs. “You have to carve your own path.” 

Ben Whitford is the Ecologist’s US correspondent

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