Government needs to remind people of when the dams ran low to sell the carbon tax

Tom DonaldIn this guest post, Tom Donald argues that reminding Australians of the days of drought is the way to sell the carbon tax.

Innovators and marketers need to understand the context in which people experience their creations much better. Failing to do so leads to the generally dreadful state of Australian cinema, and most TV ads being virtually unwatchable.

In recent debates about the Carbon Tax and the waning of popular support for it, we have again failed to recognise, and therefore address, the most important bit of contextual information: The environment itself. Specifically, it’s been raining in Australia for the last four years after barely doing so for a decade.

In a sunburnt country plagued with droughts, life feels perilous at times, especially when the water runs low. Unsurprisingly, support for environmentally progressive legislation went up and up as the dams got lower and lower.

But then the rains came back, big time. Suddenly life in the Lucky Country felt a little less perilous. “Thank God”, people said, before turning the hose on long unwatered yards and long unwashed cars. And as the dams filled back up to the brim, we returned to a ”she’ll be right mate” attitude.

Don’t expect popular support for the Carbon Tax or similar legislation to return in significant numbers until the rains disappear again (as they always do). We need the right context back. Until then, there isn’t enough in the world around us forcing us to face and make decisions about a distant and unknowable future (the kinds of decisions Daniel Kahneman and behavioural economics shows we are the worst at making well).

If the current Government wants greater success in selling the Carbon Tax to us all, it should understand that today’s context is wrong, but tomorrow’s won’t be. In the not too distant future the rains will stop and the droughts will return. That future context is coming. So use it to remind us of what the world felt like when we all last supported environmentally progressive legislation.

Because in Australia it’s not “Winter is coming”, but “Drought is coming” that might best rally us into action.

  • Tom Donald is a planning director at Droga 5. This piece first appeared on his Punk Rock Shop blog


  1. Ricki
    11 Jul 12
    11:20 am

  2. In my opinion playing the long game on this issue (and climate change acceptance suffers because of precisely this problem) doesn’t assuage people’s fear that this policy is going to slam them in the hip pocket in the here and now. People have short memories and are pretty selfish, and sad but true, most people are in it for themselves.

    My view is that the whole communications process has been flawed. This ‘thing’ should never have been allowed to be called ‘the carbon tax’ or even mention the word carbon….and unfortunately the LNP and media have been allowed to get away with calling it that without much resistance.

    It should have been called something like a ‘polluters levy’ and followed up with “….and btw here’s the list of the 300 big businesses directly affected. And in the short term, we’re going to take their polluters levy money, and give it to the people”.

    That covers off how the policy actually functions, and its easier for people to understand how it does and doesn’t directly affect them. The inability of the Govt to communicate this properly and counter all the misinformation makes me weep.

  3. Eleanor
    11 Jul 12
    3:21 pm

  4. Tom, is your article tongue in cheek?

    Are you suggesting that reminding people of drought will help them accept the carbon tax?

    Do you realise the carbon tax has nothing to do with water or drought?

    Wouldn’t linking the two look a bit silly?

    There’s also the problem that showing a link between difficult weather and climate change (without the backing of the science) would bolster scepticism.

    Perhaps proof that when it comes to the carbon tax and climate change communications some policy knowledge is necessary.

    The only truth to your article is that studies have found people are more likely to believe climate science and worry about it when they see difficult weather right in front of them.

    However, you can’t use these psychological triggers in communications unless they are true. Otherwise you undermine your message and the entire climate effort.

  5. Kate Richardson
    11 Jul 12
    4:15 pm

  6. The best suggestion I’ve heard on marketing the carbon tax is to call it what it is….a tax on pollution.

  7. Rob
    11 Jul 12
    5:11 pm

  8. I’m with Eleanor…..dumb idea to force a link between the carbon tax and the weather, support would be up and down as the normal cycles unfold.

    But bigger than anything else in the downward spiral of support for action on climate change (or global warming, remember that term anyone?) are three factors in my opinion:
    – Julia’s pre-election lie
    – Boredom and disinterest because the cause got hijacked by enviro-extremists, and most of us are sick to death of hearing about it, and we don’t believe them any more
    – Matching a tax (invoked to increase prices and reduce demand) to a compensation package (designed to offset higher costs and therefore leaving demand static) means no change to anything, just another giant money-go-round

    The politics killed this policy platform, not marketing.

    And forcing a link between the next cyclical drought event and the supposed benefits of the carbon tax will just exacerbate the view of the majority that this is all a waste of our time and money.

  9. Tom
    11 Jul 12
    8:48 pm

  10. First up, I should say that what I write on Tumblr, Twitter or wherever is me representing me, not me representing any employer.

    Second up, thanks for comments. All fair and good points.

    Indeed, I did pitch the idea to Tim as “a vaguely tongue-in-cheek Friday filler”.

    That said, I had (and have) a serious point running through my brain about our routine failure to grasp the true context in which people operate, feel things, and make decisions. This is as true of people in the adland bubble, as it is of politicians in the Canberra bubble.

    And you’re absolutely correct: droughts are not causally-linked to the Carbon Tax. But droughts *are* connected to creating the social context during which things like the Carbon Tax are acceptable to the broad population.

    Further, given A) the dams are full, and B) the Government has completely stuffed up the selling of the Carbon Tax, I maintain we won’t see support for it (or similar legislation) return until an appropriate context returns. This is not a good thing, and I’m not sure we should wait that long. We need a solution…

    So possibly I’m way off base. I often am… but to come up with viable solutions, sometimes you have to brain fart and smell what comes out. And the only way I can see to put lipstick on this pig is to recreate or leverage the context in which environmentally-progressive legislation is acceptable.

    Disagree? Fine. But posit an alternate “selling” solution. Lord knows we need one that’ll work…


  11. Tom
    12 Jul 12
    11:55 am

  12. Good God… I find myself agreeing with this bloke:

    The video makes the exact point I’m trying to focus on these days.

  13. Robbo
    12 Jul 12
    2:20 pm

  14. Fortunately, Tom, most people don’t want “greater success in selling the Carbon Tax”.
    Indeed, nor will I “rally into action” no matter what this sad government’s sales pitch.

    I know rubbish when I see it.

  15. Phil
    13 Jul 12
    9:09 am

  16. It’s beyond salvation. Even when the inevitable drought returns there’s the old chestnut of what good will the tax actually do? How can you sell something that’s not even a solution to a problem that people don’t care about any more?

    The fanaticism around climate change has set environmental causes back decades. Multi-billion dollar mothballed desal plants & failed predictions of doom have taken their toll. Trying to sell any environmental cause will be that much harder.

    Sadly I’ve gone from a paid member of Greenpeace & Friends of the Earth to crossing the street to avoid the charity collectors.

  17. Mike
    13 Jul 12
    2:05 pm

  18. Tom I think the point you miss is….the dams did fill up.
    That’s the natural cycle of the weather, which has oscillated between drought and flood since the year dot.

    It’s interesting that on a site about brand marketing like Mumbrella, you should address this huge re-branding of what everyone knows as “the weather”, to something referred to as “climate change”. “How’s the climate change today?” “Oh it’s sunny…”

    It’s like the rebranding of water in the 90’s and putting what’s free into plastic bottles and creating brand allegiance.

    Except from the rebranding of the weather, it has now morphed into a Scientology-like religion, whose acolytes rev themselves up by vilifying any who dare to question their orthodoxies.

    The majority endure them, as their time will pass. Just like wet or dry weather does.

  19. carolyn
    16 Jul 12
    1:34 pm

  20. I’d like to support Tom in raising this key issue – funny how the Friday tongue in cheek fillers are often the best!

    Seeing the responses has also made me realise how badly the government has stuffed up communication of this issue.

    Whatever the mistakes, the carbon tax IS connected to climate change. Human pollution is contributing to climate change – possibly on top of a natural change. Scientists don’t talk the language of definites (unfortunately( but the balance of evidence is pretty strong now and growing stronger by the day. The purpose of the ‘tax’ is to convert this problem from a ‘someone else pays” to a ‘user pays’ system. By doing so, we stimulate innovation in dealing with the issue because we change the priority on investment. Most thinking on how to deal with climate change from across the political spectrum agrees with that and policies around the world are all being framed around the idea of user pays pricing mechanisms.

    Where I would disagree with Tom is that we need to wait till the rains come back to sell this message. Instead, we need to reframe the conversation. As marketers we do this all time (Tena did it for incontinence pads for God’s Sake!). Tom has part of the solution in his piece where he talks about the work Daniel Kahneman is doing. We need to be employing that behavioural insight in how we communicate important and contentious issues like paying for carbon.

    Interestingly, a fellow behavioural economist of Kahneman’s, Richard Thaler is now working with UK government as part of a Behavioural Insights team on precisely how to frame conversations to change behaviour on tough issues. Perhaps our government could use a little of that !

    Anyway, well done Tom – look forward to more Friday fillers

  21. Peter Rush
    17 Jul 12
    2:56 pm

  22. “They will pass it on.” I would put these 5 words at the heart of this imaginary communications “brief”. They’re the words real people, and the Coalition are using. In fact the Coalition have Australians convinced it’s a tax on them personally. But in the end it is, and they will, you say. Now i talk about compensation of $10/week and you scoff or tune out. This is the essence of the communications challenge and Abbott knows it. “They will pass it on” has become the mantra that allows the big end of town to get away with being asked for any contribution, be it tax, levy or just to clean up their act. The compensation idea is too complicated for Joe average. You learn in advertising to keep things simple – in politics it applies more so, much more so.The compensation idea was never going to fly. I suggest anyone working on such a brief could do worse than Listen to the rot jocks on 2GB bullshitting the battlers for their big business and coalition mates. Know your target and keep your enemy close. Pass it on.