Shock Me Twice, Shame On Me

JackOLantern - Hype and Shock Tactics in the Environmental Movement

Marketing is king. That is the world we have created for ourselves over the past few centuries, and that is the world we live in. The persuasion towards commercial activity is bar none the largest source of human communication in known history. Nothing can compare in sheer volume or variety. The great epics, the brilliant literature, the pulp, none of of those forms of recorded communication can compete with the juggernaut that is modern marketing spiel. It is everywhere you look, and everywhere you turn, and there is nowhere to hide. It is little surprise then that when the environmental movement really became a main-stream entity in the last century, it adopted the language which was the most familiar and the most lucrative in the world: marketing. The lessons of the Earth and nature that had in prior times been imbibed into the human psyche through myth and tale, were now reduced to quick and brutal tag lines and pithy slogans. The environmental awareness movement, which should have stood for education, understanding, and community had been distilled into a concentrated phial of pure hype.

Today, the marketing continues. Our world is now even more inundated with commercial messages, not just because there is more to buy and sell, but also because there are so many more interruptive avenues to communicate your message with. In this purchaser’s paradise that we have built for ourselves, we now find that a new counter movement has begun. Those who prefer to keep their heads and think, on occasion, have realised that all this sales talk is distracting and senseless. They use the much brandished power of “choice”, of which the commercial soothsayers are know to sing praises, and choose to ignore most of this commercially instigated communication. Hence we have a large segment of the population that simply ignore the website banners and skip the commercials.

That leaves the environment movement, with its clever marketing and its intelligent branding, to deal with that mass of people who do look at every ad, and do click on every special offer, and do not think much about any issues beyond consumption. The ecological initiative is losing its most important audience, and this is often because of the methods of communication rather than the content of the messages. Some of the communication methods that often alienate discerning people from the environmental movement are:

  1. Hyperbolic Statements
  2. Fear Tactics
  3. Guilt Trips
  4. Sales Pitches

1] Hyperbolic Statements

Hyperbolic Statements - Hype and Shock Tactics in the Environmental MovementStatistics are a very dangerous weapon and should be used with care. Unfortunately, the green movement often relies too heavily on this double-edged sword. Since the very beginnings of the organised environmental movement, numbers, figures and impressive looking graphs have been tossed around with impunity. Some of these heavy objects hit unsuspecting listeners without warning and left them with a splitting headache, while other more enterprising people looked at these figures more carefully, changed and tweaked a few things and tossed them right back at the smug tree-huggers on the stage. They may not have been knocked out cold by the return gifts that hurtled towards them, but all that ducking and swerving made enough of a comic scene to have the audience in splits. The last thing you want when you’re trying to inform people of a serious matter is for them to to be laughing at you.

Both statistics and records were made to be broken, overturned, and twisted beyond recognition by someone who came after you and simply had more brains, money, or time to spare. If someone shouted with indignation that industries produced tons of green house gasses, some smart aleck was waiting to point out that cattle flatulence was raising a bigger ecological stink. If someone complained about how many tens of thousands of people were being killed by lung problems related to particulates in the atmosphere, someone else was quite embarrassed to tell them that hundreds of thousands were dying per year from the common flu. The list goes on and this never ending argument of “we said, they said” shall continue into eternity or until we all die, because statistics breed arguments, extraordinary claims encourage extraordinary come-backs, and the only ones enjoying this are the masochists who enjoy all this intellectual suffering. By this time the smart people have left the building and are tending their solar water heater at home.

2] Fear Tactics

Fear Tactics - Hype and Shock Tactics in the Environmental MovementIn case you missed it in the heated rambling of the last paragraph, we are all going to die! Yes, it’s true. Every Non-Governmental Organization worth its slush fund has been telling us this for over half a century now. It has gotten a bit old — the enthusiastic apocalyptic crowd have moved along to more lucrative conspiracies, the pragmatists formed Wikipedia so they could argue some more, the spiritual people are still trying to figure out the secret environmental message of The Da Vinci Code, and the cool creatures have huddled around Facebook so that on the off chance that the world does end, at least they can leave behind photographic records of every occasion in their lifetime when they failed the Breathalyzer test during a night out.

Of course, if the fear of death and destruction doesn’t work, there is always pain and suffering to encourage people with. Like every other “serious” issue-based movement, environmentalist has put great stock in the strategy of scaring people into doing the right thing. Did anyone stop to ask if this is a good idea? What precedents of fear working as a long term educational or control mechanism do we have? A growing police force and a stricter punishment system have never minimised crime. At best we all try to be as lawful as we can when people are looking. But what about when people are not looking? It’s of no help to the environment if people are being eco-friendly only when others are looking (A topic I will cover in the next article). People need to behave in an ecologically responsible way no matter what the social circumstance. That is the only way to create lasting change.

Yet, we have all been bombarded with predictions of death and destruction of civilisation as we know it, images of dead animals, films of suffering and disease, anything to scare us into submission. But people don’t do the right thing under pressure, they only do so when you have convinced them that it is the right thing to do. Fear is often short lived, and we easily grow resistant to its effect. The green movement will need to keep upping the stakes of what they want us to be afraid of. Once we’ve already grown cynical and tired of the end-of-the-world scenarios, how much higher can you go?

3] Guilt Trips

Guilt Trips - Hype and Shock Tactics in the Environmental MovementUnfortunately, this prodding of the population with pain and suffering doesn’t end there. The wisdom seems to be that if you can’t scare people with their own potential pain and suffering, make them feel guilty about someone else’s pain and suffering instead. If you can’t appeal to their selfish sense of self preservation, appeal to their altruism and higher nature instead.

And it starts again, the endless stream of images and material involving suffering animals, suffering people, which all leads to a suffering and jaded audience who think enough is enough. The problem with guilt as an encourager of action is that in those people that don’t get jaded by its onslaught, it produces a strong but usually cosmetic sense of duty to “do something”. That something ends up being some symbolic and easy to categorize packaged action that doesn’t have much long-term effect. But by then the guilty are appeased and they will go back to their normal lives until they feel guilty again.

Besides the exploitative and off-putting nature of guilt campaigns, this staccato altruism amongst the guilt-prone really makes guilt a very ineffectual way of educating people and changing their behaviour. The fact that otherwise sensitive and sympathetic people can be dismissive of this sort of communication strategy, means that the ecological movement loses out on a lot of legitimate support in the bargain while gaining a few temporarily guilty fans.

4] Sales Pitches

Sales Pitches - Hype and Shock Tactics in the Environmental MovementWhat all these faulty methods of persuasion come down to in the final analysis is that the environmental movement, quite early on, was transformed from a just cause into a magnificent sales pitch. And as sales pitches go, it can claim some success. Eco-friendly and green have as much societal and cultural acceptance now as the internet and mobile phones. But have we really changed anything in the larger picture? At some point, lost in the brilliance and the cleverness of the campaign, we lost sight of what it was we were trying to sell in the first place. Were we trying to sell people the idea of driving 5 miles in their large SUV to drop off a stack of newspapers for recycling, or were we trying to save the rain forests? Were we trying to get people to skimp on proper home insulation so that they can afford a couple of energy saving bulbs, or were we trying to reduce fossil fuel burning? These might all seem like the same thing to the untrained eye, but they are not because one is a token (and sometimes wasteful) action that we have sold to people for easy marketing purposes, and one is the gargantuan task that still remains undone.

The other bane of the marketing-heavy approach of the ecological initiative has been this terribly over stated need for “awareness”. Too much of an emphasis on “environmental awareness” has set us back. This again comes from the world of advertising and marketing. While marketing was invented with the simple and crude purpose of selling more product, over the last century or so the pundits tell us that we moved away from advertising and moved towards branding. This meant that advertising messages didn’t have to try to sell anything anymore, some of them could just be used to increase “awareness”. The theory was that if I was constantly made aware of the existence of a particular brand and product, I would be more open to trying it out in the future, due to its built-up reputation and image in my mind. That is all fine and good for selling soap, but I have serious reservations with this philosophy when it comes down to the fate of the planet’s ecology. We don’t want people to have a good image of the environmental issues so that they can be more open to doing something about them in the future, maybe! We don’t want better brand awareness, we want measurable action. Sure, at this point one of you people in the audience wearing an expensive suit and sporting a laser pointer will tell me how this is all part of a long term strategy to slowly win over the audience. You know what, I don’t think we have the time for this consumer choice malarkey when we’re talking about serious issues. And I’ll tell you another thing. I’ve been aware of the wonderfully illustrious brand of Coca-Cola for almost my entire life. I haven’t spent a penny and bought any of their acidic ambrosia for years now, and better yet, I don’t plan on doing so anytime in the future either.

It is often not what you say but how you say it that counts. The environmental movement has sometimes made some pretty bad choices for how to say things. In its bid to be accessible to everyone and become a mainstream ideal, it has lost some of the practical aspects of what it stands for and what it is trying to achieve. We are reaching a point where it is going to take a double effort to not only educate people on the right way to live in harmony with Earth’s ecology, but we are also going to have to battle with the wrong sales pitches we gave them. These quick slogans and catchy ideas have made them believe that they can do convenient little isolated things to save the world. We convinced them that driving their inefficient car to drop off a few cans for recycling could make a difference, or that keeping their lights on all the time was fine as long as they used energy saving bulbs, or that buying imported produce that was flown in on a 747 was great as long as it was marked “organic”. We convinced them of these things and and undoing the programming is not going to be easy.

We live in the world where the much heralded paperless office wastes more paper today than it ever did. We live in the world where people have been sold the idea through fear, guilt, and hype that we can all continue living our generally wasteful consumerist existence as long as we make the right choice between paper and plastic at the supermarket checkout — the same supermarket that has the most electrical lights per square metre of ceiling this side of Neptune. We have drummed up figures and they have called our bluff. We have tried to scare and guilt them into submission, but religion has already made them immune. We have tried to really sell the environmental movement as the next big trend, and in that unfortunately we have succeeded, in a way that we shouldn’t have.

Which is why in the next article, I talk about the fashion of environmentalism.


  1. These certainly all are issues that have crossed my mind in one way or another in recent years.

    Mainly the guilt issue. I do feel guilty about a lot of things.

    Eg. My weakness for Coca Cola and such sludge and when I decide to throw a recyclable item into the normal trash and the fact that i’m vegetarian yet I work in a kitchen that to my knowledge has about 2 vegetarian items on the menu.

    While not all necessarily environmental guilts they have amassed into one place and I guess I need to ask myself, Do I actually feel guilty from my heart?

    If not then why not? What can I personally do to improve myself as a person and have a positive effect on my surrounding environment?

    I guess a good first step would be to ignore the campaigns and slogans and all the things you mention and to work out a personal agenda.

    We all need our own personal agendas and need to live to a standard that rids us of our genuine guilts.

    You are completely right in my mind in the fact that education should be the prime objective. Sadly though in our current state attention span is very low amongst what is coined as ‘Normal’ people and even education would need some dressing up for ‘Normal’ people to even accept it in any way.

    1. Completely agree with you about the need to dress up education for ‘normal’ people. In fact my pet peeve about education systems everywhere is that they are too dry, unapproachable, and aren’t creatively dressed up to make them engaging (but that could be a whole different series of artcles).

      In this case though, I’m not really against the dressing up as much as I am against the sensationalism. It’s fine to embelish things to get the message across, but make everything a tabloid headline and eventually the majority of the people are going to stop believing you had a baby with a 4-headed alien … as true as that might be.

      I seem to remember hearing the story of the shepherd boy who cried “Wolf!” quite early in my life, and I absorbed the moral of that story. Some people obviously didn’t.

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