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The only place where things will get better is the land of milk and honey
von Thomas Wagner | 9/22/2008

There they fly through a rainbow colored world complete with lush green meadows and blue lakes, the stinking, clattering, dirty diesel engines. The bunnies don earmuffs, birds scatter, several duckbilled platypuses dive - the annoyance is considerable. But then a sonorous voice is heard singing a pleasant song: "Hate something, change something - make something better". And already the old environmental hazards have been expelled, the cute white bunnies shoot them down with arrows, and purring softly the new, clean diesel glides through the small, colorful Paradise. Ah, how wonderful, we have managed to make things better. No problem at all, thanks to the "Power of Dreams" by Honda. And before you know it you catch yourself humming: Hate something, change something...

The all-out battle by advertisers for an ecologically clear conscience and a positive, ecological image has been raging for some time and on a broad front. In companies and environmental organizations alike. After all, in our media-driven society the aim is to generate as much attention as possible for your own particular product - which in some cases entails changing your behavior. Nor does it matter at all that given the lack of international standards and product certificates the average consumer is scarcely able to assess the eco-soundness of the products presented to him. Is a bank fund investing in projects for clean water good not only for the bank? At any rate the commercial by the Royal Bank of Canada and the one by Honda rely on a cute, peaceful children's world in which everything seems to be packed in candy floss. But what good does it do the polar bear - who you might say merely stands in for us humans - when the ice is literally melting away beneath his paws? Should you compare a diesel engine that produces less harmful particles and harmful substances with other diesel engines or with riding the subway?

The organization Environmental Defense, for example, has come up with three commercials to draw attention to the problem of global warming. In one children of different skin colors imitate the ticking of a clock - tick, tock, tick, tock. We still have time, but it is running out. In another you see an approaching train. It is moving faster than you think. An older man simply walks away from the tracks but the little girl cannot get away and has to stay put. Neither commercial is particularly appealing in aesthetic terms, the sole concern is the message. The third commercial also revolves around instructing and making changes, but despite a certain underlying melancholy infused by the music it develops a poetry all its own. Slowly two polar bears, an adult and cub are inflated by the air rising up from the subway ventilation grid - only to gradually deflate again. Birth and death. Moreover, in contrast with the other two this commercial also contains a specific proposal: "Ride, don't drive."

Environmental Defense is one of the leading American nonprofit organizations. It has been around since 1967, now has more than 500,000 members and harnesses scientists, the business community, legislators and private initiatives to find solutions for pressing environmental problems. The campaign with the polar bears was intended as a wake-up call regarding global warming, which is referred to as the greatest ecological challenge facing mankind today. The intention, we read on the Environmental Defense website, is to show Americans the need for quick action, and demonstrate how every individual can take steps in the right direction in their everyday life.

If you compare the commercial "Grr" for Honda and the catchy soundtrack "Hate something, change something" with the death imagery in the polar bear commercial what immediately strikes you is that such a fundamental topic as global warming has negative undertones, while a new diesel engine has positive associations. Driving a car is an enjoyable activity, not something you can really claim of environmental protection. As such, something that is actually positive continues to have more of a negative image. Like every change it seems to be frightening and strenuous. And is it not strange that people believe they can bring about change using hate as motivation and even use this in a commercial. The hatred comes across as something cheerful and light but it is not like that. And so it becomes easy to hate something, not a new little engine worthy of hating.

In other words, simply appealing to peoples' consciences and giving them information is not enough in itself. The core of the dilemma is that consumers are being assigned a responsibility which they are not in a position to shoulder on their own. Ecology and global warming primarily remain political issues that can only be solved on a political level through concerted efforts at altering our behavior. Without a doubt advertising can foster this process since it shows products in a certain context, in a friendly and pleasant atmosphere and associates them with certain values.

This phenomenon is more than a problem of advertising or communication. And if the situation is to change on a broad front then it is also a problem of design. Not simply regarding the design of the commercial but of products, which are sufficiently ecologically sound. Only once these products - beyond all visions of an ideal world - are infused with a new kind of prestige aesthetically and ethically will they be favored over those products whose ecological record is more dubious. In a society that revolves around consumption, in which buying is seen as lustful and good promise us image, prestige and a social identity, an altered consciousness alone will not suffice. At least in the rich industrial nations it is not just a matter of money. But people do want it to be enjoyable and to promise just as much increased lust as all the stinking, harmful, unhealthy yet desirable things. Only when aesthetics, ethics and industry join forces will something changes.

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