Advertising is fuel on the fire of the climate emergency

All or Nothing managing director Warren Davies says the ad industry needs to pick its battles in order to win the war against climate change.

‘Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ the question goes in The Wild One. ‘Whatta ya got?’ Marlon Brando’s Johnny responds. Too often that’s our response to clients and to business in the communications industry. We love the action, we’re not fussed who it’s for. But we should care, right? Scientists are united on climate, our future colleagues are skipping school to demand action on it, even Rupert Murdoch’s media is looking to a carbon neutral future. It’s clear that creative services for business – advertising, PR, sales, media – provided without consideration for the impact of the work or client business can be fuel on the fire of the climate emergency.

Industry research (WARC, 2019) has shown that creativity is a significant multiplier for commercial outcomes – up to 15x – which is great if you’re talking about a government health program, plant-based foods or renewable energy. It’s far from good when we’re talking fossil fuels, fast food and intensive agriculture. The top 20 advertisers in Australia in 2020 included brands like Harvey Norman, Wesfarmers, McDonald’s and Amazon. This top 20 included many brands with intensive use of transport, agriculture, energy and industrial processes. These are significant contributors to our climate emissions in Australia according to the CSIRO.

Many of these corporations are big global concerns. They have big global agency mates that don’t have much accountability at a local level and they know the angles to encourage people to buy more and buy without thinking too hard. As masters of the abstract it’s possible we’ve consigned the outcomes of what we do to another place, time or people. Pew Research reports that 67% of Australians believe climate change is impacting them today where they live. Women are not having children in fear of the future. It’s happening where you live and it’s happening today.

The obvious reply is, it’s all legal business, and what’s more we enjoy a lot of what’s involved: big TVs, burgers in an instant and international holidays every year. I like that stuff too. But it’s still legal to be a dickhead and too much of anything will kill us, as Joe Jackson explained.

While Australians are concerned and want action, agencies in particular appear to be playing dumb or are simply unaware of their impact when working for harmful clients. Comms Declare, a local advocacy organisation, recently released its report Fuelling Fantasies on attitudes and practices in our industry. For the survey 103 of 200 top agencies responded: almost eight in ten had worked with highly polluting clients in the past year (none had any idea of their client’s emissions); only four in ten had formal emissions reductions policies and a similar amount couldn’t account for their own emissions. Given our creativity is the X factor for business, it was stark that nine in ten surveyed people under 30 years of age in the industry felt climate was the most or one of the most important issues for us all.

To be clear, it’s not ‘the agency’ as a whole. We’re good people, but the precedent at many shops (‘don’t ask, don’t tell’) and cultivated blind spots are impacting us all. A simple way to make progress is to ask each day and provide honest answers in a group forum to the following:

  • Does this piece of work contribute to the climate emergency and if so, can we resign it now or phase down our involvement and move people onto other work?
  • Do I have a choice to work on this account and can I exercise it in the way I do for tobacco, alcohol or arms?
  • If I pass this job up today, will another one come along in the coming days that will make up for it and would I feel better about that?

It used to be the case that those with the biggest problems had the biggest cause for our help as an industry. But I didn’t sign up for that, did you? While the science today is grim and demands careful attention, our creative opportunity is not to look away but to look to the emerging and newly established categories and brands that will serve us well today and decades from now. A brief for another whitegoods campaign or 4WD is not exactly breaking new ground, but growing ‘meat’ in a lab or turning desert into saltbush into protein is something Lester, David or Bill would climb out of their hole for.

I know for certain I don’t want to look anyone in the eye years from now and like Johnny say: ‘Maybe I could of stopped it early, but once the trouble was on its way, I was just goin’ with it.’

How about you?

Warren Davies is the managing director of All or Nothing.


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