Blog post

Plane Stupid’s Polar Bear Ad

This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.

Adam Corner just pointed this ad out to me. What are the likely impacts of an advertisement like this? Ed Gillespie suggests that it will be counterproductive, because…

the danger is that by pumping up the high octane drama of an ad, you increase the risk of viewers feeling manipulated and dismissing it as pure propaganda

Another danger is that, in working to invoke guilt amongst people who still take short-haul flights, this will drive them to deploy other psychological ‘coping mechanisms’, such as projecting their guilt onto others (e.g. the response that: “it’s not my fault, when China is building a new coal-fired powerstation every few days…”).

The lessons from psychotherapy are that hard-hitting and judgmental responses to people’s current behaviour rarely lead to positive behavioural change.  But then part of me thinks… ‘damn right’, 400kg is a lot of CO2 and, in the size and shape of a bear, it sure would leave a dent on your bonnet…

Tom Crompton

About Tom Crompton

I'm Change Strategist at WWF-UK. For five years I headed WWF-International's Trade and Investment Programme (working on World Trade Organization issues, for example). While I was (and still am) convinced that international trade policy is crucially important in sustainability terms, I was frustrated by the glacial pace of change on this agenda - and the fact that even those trade negotiators I got to know who were personally quite 'radical' nonetheless felt impotent in a system where there was so little political space to pursue the changes that are needed. This led me to ask how organisations like WWF might begin to work to help create the political space for more ambitious change. What leads to more vocal expressions of public concern about sustainability issues? What motivates people to bring more pressure to bear on their elected leaders? These questions led to work with social psychologists and political scientists, and the publication of a series of reports: "Weathercocks and Signposts: the environment movement at a crossroads" (2008); "Simple and Painless? The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning" (with John Thogersen, 2008), and "Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity" (with Tim Kasser, 2009). These pieces of work culminated naturally in our new report, "Common Cause".
  • Renee Lertzman

    Okay, first off I didn’t make it through the whole thing, and didn’t want to watch it because of the premise. That says something I think about the effect it has on me. I’m not really up for being hit with bleeding, falling polar bears.

    What my current research is starting to say to me is that, frankly, ads and communications will touch and effect people very differently, depending on a whole range of factors. So it’s not productive necessarily to make generalisations about whether or not the ad will be ‘effective’. Rather, I think we need to look at the underlying affect and mood of the piece–it says a lot more to me about how the people producing it are feeling and their emotional world, than perhaps anything else. This messaging comes out of sheer and total frustration at the lack of the public and policy and business to ACT and start taking this all seriously. It is an angry piece of communications. I am not saying that is wrong or misplaced, but is just the fact.

    Then we need to consider how certain affects help produce certain (or desired) actions or practices. This leads us back to the fear-based appeal campaign debates. It’s my understanding, however, that there is pretty good consensus from research studies indicating that fear-based appeals do not necessarily work very well. In fact they can stimulate the opposite responses that the communications strategy is trying to evoke.

    I think the ad speaks to a genuine dilemma we find ourselves in: How do we shake people, metaphorically, to start acting now; or whether shaking people is the right approach at all. It’s not about coddling people into feeling safe and secure and warm inside enough to take action. It’s also not about scaring the pajamas off of by showing truly horrific ads (and I think this one is particularly pernicious for the very subtle reference to things falling from tall buildings). It’s about finding the balance between information, fear (based on reality-based principles, to use a Freudian expression), support, encouragement.

    But I think Rosemary Randall’s work in particular helps us see that in fact, unless we address the underlying motivations, and affective dimensions of our consumptive-based lifestyles, then we are missing the boat completely. It’s like speaking Mandarin to a Spanish-speaking person. We are not going to be communicating on the level that is screaming out to be attended to: the desires for comfort, safety, security, connection, esteem, value, status and so forth that we are all trying to attain. Until we can compellingly present our challenges to shift our practices in this language, then we are going to be, essentially, speaking a foreign tongue, which will be simply tuned out.

  • http://indications.wordpress.com/ Steve Schwarze

    Along with that Greenpeace ad mentioned by Gillespie, it looks like 9/11 iconography is no longer off limits, at least in the UK.

    One addition to Renee’s comments about fear appeals research: they do tend to promote maladaptive responses *unless* they are tied to a concrete action that can be shown to effectively mitigate the threat. Seems like this ad fails that test.

    It’s interesting that they use the polar bear. O’Neill and Hulme’s (2009) study of public perception of climate change icons showed that respondents were most drawn to polar bears but found it to be the least relevant for thinking about climate change, compared to other possible icons. Granted, this ad is not really wanting people to *think*, but to the extent it does, it promotes pretty muddled thinking.

  • http://wakeupfreakout.org/film/tipping.html Ciaran Mundy

    It is pretty gruesome and smacks of the frustration we all probably feel in the face of mainstream consumer culture and industrial civilisation generally. My guess would be it is not going to resonate with anyone who does not already get it, but it is not scare mongering or hopeless. Maybe it just gets a simple fact rammed home in an unforgettable way? In terms of redirecting behaviour and attitudes in a positive way. . . . Get on your bike not on a plane!

    By way of contrast Leo Murray did this –

    http://wakeupfreakout.org/film/tipping.html

    I think ‘Wake Up Freak Out. . . . ‘ is a masterly peice of communication that simplifies a complex scientifc concept without dumbing it down and relating the seriousness, without it seeming a hopeless case and the ask is appropriately framed too. Leo Murray subsequently worked on Age of Stupid and was down in Bristol last Thursday for a screening organised by our Transition group. We discussed then the danger of frightening messages without the possibility of resolution or means to positively process and move to empowered activism. I think AoS and this latest ad potentially suffers this, although AoS framed with other activities is very powerful and motivating as we discovered. Lot’s of new volunteers signed up!

    I’d like to hear his thoughts on our discussions as he clearly is a gifted film maker and communicator. . . .

  • Jim Mitchell

    When I first heard about this I thought it was going to be totally counter productive. Seeing it for the first time here it has an impact so in that sense I think it is making people sit up and take notice which is a considerable part of the advertiser’s art. However – do enough people care enough about polar bears? I think that this will have a limited impact, maybe a couterproductive one, with the vast majority of people. However for those who feel guilty about flying but still do this might work. I wonder if Plane Supid (if they are reading) are planning any research into this ad’s effectiveness?

  • Pingback: Why the Plane Stupid ad works « Antidote