Is this the ultimate in green marketing?

This blog was originally posted at Identity Campaigning.

Here’s Ford’s new car advert, featuring unborn animals. It’s really quite powerful, because it at once reduces anxieties (by affirming our connection with the source of life, species, vital energies), and suggests the product is an affirmation of these deepest connections.

The car as object no longer arouses anxieties as contributing to climate change and the decimation of species. Buying this car, the implicit message runs, connects one to life itself, and to oneself as a life-affirming individual (here is the identity stuff).

The music is what you’d expect to hear in a child’s nursery; like music from wind-up soft toys. So what is happening affectively in this ad is also the arousal of more ‘infantile’ desires and sensations. Infants live in an undifferentiated world of objects, sensations, and so on. This ad actually powerfully evokes this world of floating embryonic creatures and foetuses, soft and mutating. The car then becomes the object (in Winnicott’s terms, ‘transitional object’, or Bollas’ ‘transformational object’) that connects us with this part of ourselves.

Hell, I want to buy one! (just kidding) Reminds me of something Rosemary Randall wrote:

“If, as I am suggesting, awareness of environmental degradation and its related social and political problems produces unbearable anxiety, then shopping brings relief. As well as being an inevitable and essential component of capital’s constant search for new markets, it functions as the actual act of denial that anything is wrong. Shopping, with its cornucopia of delights, its visual, tactile and auditory appeals to the senses, its promises of enjoyment and pleasure says symbolically – All is well. This is what you are meant to be doing. This is the way to satisfy need. There is collective comfort in the knowledge that everyone is doing the same thing. A sense of normality comes with the awareness of others engaged in similar pursuits and the overall experience provides a soothing protection from stories of war, destruction and pain.”

Connecting the purchase of a car with life force and planetary empathy is the ultimate form of splitting. This is dissociation in practice. I don’t see anything positive about this ad. But it signals something very important; that such imageries have higher cultural currency as moving people on very deep levels. It signals a shift in the cultural consciousness and the realm of semiotics.

Renee LertzmanIs this the ultimate in green marketing?


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  • Ciaran Mundy - July 15, 2009 reply

    If the thesis is that eliciting intrinsic values leads to more pro-environmental behaviors, transcendent view of self etc. then Ford are doing us all a favour with the ad. Is it possible to co-opt such deeper values for such ends in the the long run? One could argue that if most advertising were like this, rather than appealing to the usual aspects of our fears and insecurities, status, immediate physical desires etc. then overall, people would be less interested in buying new cars, or anything else for that matter.

  • jules - July 15, 2009 reply

    Tom, as you say very subversive.

    Ford clearly think they are onto something clever linking new life etc with their ‘breakthrough technology’.

    What they have missed is that they are way behind the curve. Not only in that this is hardly world-changing technology, but in that the deepest challenges and greatest change will come from changing ourselves not our kit.

    The zeitgeist even in the standard NGO world (let alone radical Tom-world) has shifted away from ‘transportation’ through ‘green mobility’ to a much broader and deeper concept of ‘connectivity’ and indeed beyond.

    So its not about how far you can go on a gallon of fuel, its about being connected with yourself and intrinsic values and then to other beings, but on a much more local, real basis. In short its about walking in the woods with your kids and friends not sitting in a car jam in an eco car.

    But no one is telling Ford or other companies that this is the new way to think. They are just doing what they are designed to do. Sell cars. Unless social norms and the market incentivises them to sell something better that’s what they are locked into. This co-option of intrinsic values to sell a product which is still largely a consumerist purchase (and extrinsic values orientated) will not do them any favours.

  • aladin - July 15, 2009 reply

    the ad teeters on the bathetic and crass. yes we love pics of living things and aren’t they cute when they are so small and vulnerable – tug at heartstrings – but does it need deconstruction and rebuttal? it’s self evident greenwash and nobody is fooled. of course, more sustainable production processes are to be lauded but this kind of freeloading in the slipstream, on the coat-tails of associating with ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘natural’ – is a trifle out of touch? there are other, more direct, even more honest ways of putting across what ford want to put across. bottom line is your carbon footprint goes up, not down, when you drive these things.

  • Steve S - July 15, 2009 reply

    Renee, do you have any details about the circulation of this ad? US, UK? Or date…the YT page says it was posted in 2007.

    Your analysis is good…a great ex. of dissociation as you say.

    Politically, its imagery clearly resonates with other “pro-life” imagery. I think it can be read as doing some important identity work relative to the growing evangelical response to climate change.

  • Jon Alexander - July 15, 2009 reply

    Ouch. As resident self-hating adman, I’m feeling quite uncomfortable at this point. I think it would be wise for someone – Renee? – to put this into a complaint letter which we can all sign to the ASA to get this withdrawn on grounds of greenwash. This blog should be a source of action, not just discussion, and we have a clear case.
    From the ASA seminar report last summer:
    3.1 Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication,
    marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove all claims, WHETHER DIRECT OR IMPLIED, that are capable of objective substantiation.
    There is a clear ‘implied claim’ that buying this car will play a direct role to preserve the world’s endangered species for the next generation. This is factually untrue – a) every car contributes to emissions, and b) even if you were to accept that an 80% reduction would make such a car a viable replacement purchase, this car gets nowhere near that 80% mark.
    I understand Aladin’s and Ciaran’s mitigations (I wouldn’t call them defences), but I think without even getting into the complexities of identity theory, this is simply irresponsible… and actually illegal. I am happy to sign and contribute to a letter, though I feel it would be more powerful to come from the voice of those of you with greater credibility as scientists and scholars.

  • Tom - July 15, 2009 reply

    Yes, Steve, I’m not sure how new it is either – but this is my fault. I’ve been forwarding it around, not knowing when it was made. Not that this detracts from Renee’s analysis of it at all: but it may make a campaign against it a bit belated, Jon.

    Have a look at this presentation on Ford’s ‘Environmental Advertising’. I don’t know its provenance, but it appears to discuss the ad (a ‘baby animal’s ad’), and people’s responses to it.

  • aladin - July 15, 2009 reply

    nothing worth mitigating here. amused to see myself misconstrued. pure, unvarnished smoke and mirrors. this brings into relief the whole tussle in the usa over how to rescue the automobile manufacturers; one is desirous of a decisionmaking process in congress and capitol hill leave alone the white house which looks at wider cintextual issues; as in life, the putative opportunity costs are elements one cannot disappear away.

  • Ciaran Mundy - July 16, 2009 reply

    I would say that looking at the strength of our reaction and even willingness to join in potential action against Ford substantiates the point that eliciting such values is in fact a mistake for companies trying to sell more stuff that people do not have a real need for. As for being dissociative, surely that is only the case if over all it does in fact cause people experiencing the ad to go out and buy more cars.

    I am aware of the history since Bernays and have seen Cuntury of the Self. However, the awareness of advertisers that the subconscious is the place where most decision making resides does not mean that all eliciting of sub conscious values in an attempt to build a brand will be successful. One important question here – is it the case that if the association they are trying to build does not fit then it may be that it will be rejected and even counterproductive?

    If, as I am suggesting, it may have the overall impact of eliciting often dormant but nascent intrinsic values, we are likely to recoil at the clumsy attempt to encourage us to think of cars in this way. Our emotional reaction, subsequent conscious affirmation and behaviour then helps us build on our identity from the intrinsic sphere.

    I am playing devil’s advocate a bit here but think reflecting on our own reaction to the ad may be helpful in understanding it’s impact.

  • Renee Lertzman - July 16, 2009 reply

    I think it’s important to ask who is the “we” here… certainly those who are thinking critically about messaging and green washing will be inclined to “recoil” but I would not necessarily think this is the case for many… but that’s just my take.
    Leveraging powerful symbolic images that speak to intrinsic values does not necessarily do anything for the cultivation of those values, particularly when framed specifically around a particular product or practice. I am thinking here of an ad showing in cinemas currently, showing strangers kissing and touching one another during all kinds of impersonal transactions. I can’t remember what product was being sold, but the context and the framing are always present. I often think of Toby M. Smith’s fantastic book, The Myth of Green Marketing in these debates. As she writes,

    “The myth of green consumerism supplies components that we, as narrativizing creatures, arrange into a story that helps us overlook the cracks in a productivist hegemony. This is not, for most people, a conscious activity. The happy ending to the environmental crisis implied by green marketers makes no ecological sense. It is important, then, that the story is never explicitly narrated: the consumer much be guided along a story path of her own making.”

    There are very powerful affects being stimulated in all ads and in this particular one. By ‘affect’ I mean unconscious feelings, sensations, desires. It is impossible for me to step outside of my own subjectivity and suggest how others are experiencing this ad or any other. But I think we need to be very careful in suggesting the release of such representations may in fact lead to the cultivation of intrinsic values. The framer and the frame are always present and shaping the story “we” make.

  • Mark Meisner - July 17, 2009 reply

    Folks, I have enjoyed this discussion so much that I have written a somewhat lengthy response over at Indications, the environmental communication and culture blog.

  • maura nunez - July 20, 2009 reply

    All green ads today are greenwashing. And they will remain greenwashing until 100% of the corporation’s practices are sustainable, cradle-to-cradle, or even improve the environment. Given the undeniable prevalence of institutional inertia within corporations, all green ads probably will fall into the greenwashing category for a long time.

    Remember: this is the Ford Motor Company, as in Fordism, the dominant industrial paradigm of high modernity: mass production and mass consumption as the engines of economic growth. We can’t expect Ford to escape from the paradigm it created and which sustained it for almost a century.

    It is trying to be sustainable, much more so than its ugly cousin General Motors. But it’s also the Ford Motor Company and the job of everyone there is to maintain and grow that company.

    So back to the ad. It promotes a dubiously sustainable technology that Ford has developed. It’s dubious for 2 reasons: (1) flexifuel is 85% corn-based ethanol, 15% gasoline (2) flexifuel is really hard to find.

    Nobody who cares enough to buy an environmentally friendly car will buy a flexifuel car. This ad can’t make that happen. What this ad can do is exactly what it is doing now: entering into a conversation with people about topics that are important to them. Crispin Porter + Bogusky uses this strategy. So does Saatchi and Saatchi.

  • tim kasser - July 29, 2009 reply

    I’d like to comment on the question about whether Ford is “doing us a favor” by even mentioning intrinsic values. My sense is that they are not doing us a favor, for, as others have pointed out, they link intrinsic values (primarily for community feeling and probably affiliation as well) with the act of consumption. As such, what they are really doing, as have so many other advertisers before, is co-opting intrinsic values (which are very powerful motivators) to sell a product – it is really no different than selling hair shampoo or cars through appeals to affiliation. Such a strategy reinforces in viewers’ minds the associations Renee initially mentioned: “Oh, I can save the world by consuming” and thus, I would imagine, diminishes other, better ways to promote sustainability. That is, when motivated by their intrinsic values, viewers of this add become increasingly likely to think that “buying a car” is a good solution for environment problems, which we all know is not the case.

    I’d like to second Jon’s point – it would be very interesting to consider whether this website, still in its very early formative stages, could become a source of something more than conversation but also of actual activism. Does any organization currently exist who has the mission of going after greenwashing ad campaigns? If the UK has legislation that can be used to support such activism, there are potentially some winnable battles (and good PR for identity campaigning) out there.

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