The corporate creation of an engaging ‘green’ spectacle

The following is an extract from our forthcoming book Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-destruction (Cambridge University Press) - out in bookshops later this year.

Corporate marketing and branding around sustainability and ‘green’ themes has undergone dynamic growth over the past decade as social concern over the environment and climate change has spiralled. Many major consumer brands – including Walmart, Ben & Jerry’s, GE, Toyota, Patagonia, Frito-Lay, Timberland, Tesco and even Shell – have embraced a ‘green’ message in their marketing.

A principal aim has been to successfully tap into consumers’ increased environmental awareness while avoiding allegations of duplicity or ‘greenwashing’. Guy Pearse has documented that there is often a disconnect between the ‘green’ boasts of corporate advertising and the reality of environmental impact. A selective focus on specific products and activities is sometimes exposed, as are assertions that are simply inaccurate; but what remains unmistakable in all such activities is an emphasis on evoking positive emotions among consumers and the public in general as part of an alternative emotionology of challenge and opportunity.

A powerful emotional theme in ‘green’ advertising has been to draw attention to the hope and optimism that spring from technological innovation. The imagined possibilities of new technologies that harness the environment rather than exploit and destroy it are presented as satisfying fantasies.

One classic example here is GE’s ecomagination marketing, which showcases imagined futures of renewable energy and environmentally beneficial industrial activities. In one especially redolent ecomagination commercial a young girl pictures a future world of underwater tidal energy farms, jet planes with birds’ wings and trains that move in unison with swaying trees. The audience is invited to greet this comforting, idealistic dream of technology married to nature with similarly child-like wonder, awe and curiosity as the girl describes her mother’s work:

My Mom, she makes underwater fans that are powered by the moon. My Mom makes airplane engines that can talk. My Mom makes hospitals you can hold in your hand. My Mom can print amazing things right from her computer. My Mom makes trains that are friends with trees. My Mom works at GE.

 

The theme of technology and nature proceeding hand-in-hand is also prevalent in much recent ‘green’ car advertising. Some good examples include:

  • Ford’s ‘Why would you sit on a soybean?’ advert, which shows female members of the company’s R&D department working on soy-based car foam. Soy-based foam is lighter, more effective and biodegradable; according to the advert, it is also a technology that Ford set out to perfect but which rival manufacturers dismissed. The narrator, identified as a mother of small children, underlines the need to protect future generations, saying: ‘We need to preserve the environment now.’ Emotions of pride, respect and satisfaction predominate in such accounts of corporate innovation reducing the perceived environmental cost of consumption.

 

  • Nissan’s advert for its new electric model, which further ratchets up the positive emotionality with its tale of a lone polar bear undertaking an epic journey from the melting Arctic to a major city. There the animal embraces a man who is about to climb into his new Nissan Leaf. The touching imagery and soundtrack engage the audience in empathy and sadness for the bear’s plight but then reverse this in the penultimate scene with a message of hope and optimism: nature will thank us if we all buy ‘green’ cars.

 

  • Audi’s ‘Green Police’ advert, which debuted during the 2010 Super Bowl. This offers a humorous satire of a fictional green police force arresting various members of the public for energy and waste offences. In the key scene a diesel-powered Audi SUV is waved through an ‘eco-roadblock’ after being passed as compliant with tough environmental codes. The tagline declares: ‘Green has never felt so right!’

 

The emotions of humour and positivity contained in adverts such as these stand in stark contrast to the negative and confronting emotions showcased in the likes of Greenpeace’s ‘Angry Kid’ or Plane Stupid’s depiction of polar bears plummeting from the sky.

Moreover, corporate promotion of such a positive emotionology around the environmental impact of the business world extends beyond the mere advertising of products. Corporations also make public declarations of worthiness to meet criticism and rejuvenate their image.

Take Canada’s exploitation of the tar sands, which has led to an extensive PR blitz intended to revamp the fossil fuel industry as a producer of ‘ethical oil’. Here emotions of pride and admiration are linked to nationalism. The assumption is that Canada, as a liberal democracy, should be regarded as a more morally worthy context for fossil fuel extraction:

Countries that produce Ethical Oil protect the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities, including gays and lesbians. Conflict Oil regimes, by contrast, oppress their citizens and operate in secret, with no accountability to voters, the press or independent judiciaries. Some Conflict Oil regimes even support terrorism (quoted in Hickman, 2011).

Analogously, Peabody Energy’s endorsement of coal as a solution to ‘energy poverty’ in the developing world is designed to underscore the laudable outcomes of the company’s activities. Chevron’s ‘We Agree’ campaign uses ‘real people’ to soften its corporate image and strengthen its claims regarding ‘clean’ fossil fuel use, with the public asked to share in the excitement and optimism of such sentiments by clicking the ‘I agree’ button on a dedicated website.

All of these PR efforts have much the same goal: to make consumers feel somehow proud and satisfied that they can consume fossil fuels – and, by extension, to make them avoid the guilt that stems from concern over the destruction of the planet. This corporate reframing of the climate crisis creates new identities for citizens in which they can be active constituents in corporate political campaigns and ‘responsible’ consumers, participating in an emotionally engaging ‘green’ spectacle.

Importantly however, there are clear signs that people are aware of these attempts to frame environmental concern into new opportunities for consumption.  The rejection of corporate ‘greenwashing’ continues. Moreover, as the rapid success of the fossil fuel divestment movement shows, humour, hope and passion are central to alternative imaginings of our climate future.

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