Give a hoot about how to stop global warming

The environmental movement needs some new advertising methods. The next slogan will take a lot of creativity.

Holly Lahd

Pop quiz: who is the most famous American environmentalist? Is it Al Gore, Aldo Leopold, or Rachel Carson? For the average American, Smokey the Bear is probably a more recognizable figure than these names. While the issues and messages of the environmental movement change over time, Smokey the Bear still survives to preach his message of “only you can prevent forest fires.”

The advertising icons of environmental campaigns often survive far beyond the organizers and even the messages themselves.

Designing the next slogan to inspire people on complex environmental issues like global warming and clean water will take a lot of creativity. In fact, it will probably take more creativity than I have, but I’m willing to offer a few suggestions.

Over its lifetime, the environmental movement has been plagued with one of the worst public relations jobs of progressive movements.

Issues that should be causes for everyone to rally behind, like clean air and clean water, are often twisted into things that only the special interests care about. And stereotypes of tree huggers and far-leftists detract from these issues. An effective advertising campaign is one part of changing the direction.

Remember “don’t mess with Texas?” Although the slogan is now nationally associated with George W. Bush, the phrase was originally part of an antilittering campaign in Texas.

At the DontMessWithTexas.org site, you can get everything from don’t mess with Texas mugs to bumper stickers, along with a place to report litterers. Has the catchy slogan worked at reducing litter? The Web site claims that litter along Texas highways has decreased by 52 percent since 1995 (still 1 in 3 Texans admit to littering).

Actually, most of the famous environmental advertising campaigns are associated with littering. And why not? Highway littering is a relatively easy pollutant to identify where it’s coming from. But littering is one thing; global warming is another. When you can’t point a finger at the sole cause of a problem, can a public service-style campaign still work?

The challenge is how to distill these important messages about multi-faced environmental problems into an advertising campaign that’s not just informative but catchy.

One of the original littering television ads is commonly known as the “Crying Indian.” Debuting on Earth Day 1971, the public service announcement has dramatic images of a sole Indian man paddling a polluted river and later standing along a litter-filled highway. It’s simple message, “People start pollution, people can stop it” resonated with the still-new environmental movement.

And who can forget Woodsy Owl and “give a hoot, don’t pollute?” While it’s now a catchy hipster slogan imprinted on T-shirts, the phrase originally was part of a campaign of the U.S. Forest Service to reduce future pollution by educating children. Now Woodsy Owl’s updated motto – “Lend a hand – Care for the Land!” – is taught to children across the country.

Now in the 21st century, the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund has produced one of the most controversial and provocative global warming ads on the market.

“The Train” features a black train steaming full speed towards a man on a train track.

He states that global warming will have irreversible effects in 30 years, so it won’t affect him. Just as the train approaches, he steps off the tracks, revealing a young girl standing behind him in the direct path of the train.

This ad with its symbolic global warming train has been accused of fear mongering and of exploiting people’s fears by using children in the ad. Littering is bad, but it is reversible. Global warming emissions are much more complex, and so the goal needs to be reducing emissions now and sustaining this reduction. How can you put this into an ad and not make people tune you out?

Talking about the future is important, and using a time reference is too. But instead of talking about choices and, god forbid, sacrifices people should make, advertisements should focus on the innovation that accompanies the development of new solutions to our energy problems, our water needs, and other environmental issues.

Conveying the sense of ownership over the direction we as a society go in terms of our environmental legacy is a necessary emotion to evoke. And as always, talking about protecting our resources for future generations (i.e. for the precious children) is a winner, but tap into our selfish sides, too.

This applies especially for people our age. We are working toward this goal of a clean environment not just for future generations but for ourselves as well.

The challenge is to condense these themes into a 30-second sound bite and not scare audiences while doing it.

Is it sad that these cartoon figures are more recognizable than the environmental leaders? Not really. The sad thing would be if these figures were remembered simply as catchy t-shirt phrases.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected]