'The good life': What can ads do about the climate?

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‘The Good Life’

What can ads do about the climate?
The climate crisis is an unprecedented challenge, the biggest we’ve ever faced. The science is simple: greenhouse gas emissions are heating up the planet, which will make life as we know it impossible. We need to reduce our emissions to net zero by 2050, or ideally sooner. Which we (broadly) know how to do. But we’re not doing it, partly because solving this unprecedented challenge means making unprecedented behaviour change, across everything we do. Which is hard.
But imagine if the advertising industry, the best and brightest behaviour changers, focused their prodigious persuasive power on tackling the climate crisis. What would that look like? How would that happen?
Over the past few weeks, prompted by Extinction Rebellion’s letter to the industry, people have gathered to ask themselves exactly that.
First, the ‘Climate Summit’ was hosted by CommsLab and The Purpose Disruptors at The Ri. Then the IPA’s 44 Club invited XR to give the latest version of their talk and host a Q&A. Each event took a slightly different tone, but similar faces appeared at both, all seeking to answer XR’s question: “what are you doing?” It’s a vital question. Consumerism contributes to 60% of greenhouse gas emissions, and the ad industry exists to encourage that consumerism.
So what can we do? Well, the industry thrives on selling ‘the good life’. So the question becomes, what does ‘the good life’ mean in the climate crisis?
What if we reimagined ‘the good life’ as one that involves bringing about the “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change” that the UN suggests we need to make, whilst also being better for people? A life that doesn’t involve cutting down 38 football fields worth of forest every second, or reducing the wildlife population by 60%, or using dirty fuels.
Instead a life that’s long-termist, not short-termist, that gives people long-lasting meaning and status. A life that’s regenerative, not extractive, that rebuilds healthier communities and stops seeing the natural world and its people as targets for exploitation. A life that’s liberated from desire and all the anxiety it can bring, where buying less stuff actually makes you feel better. A life without division, where all people feel belonging, sharing purpose and joy. A life that’s sustainable without sacrifice, with products that are better quality and better for us, without stalling our economy and breaking our bank balances. A fairer, just life, that prioritises wellbeing, leaving room for growth where it’s due.
If we could imagine that ‘good life’, we could then do what we do best: tap into people’s unconscious motivations and bypass their entrenched habits and biases, using the power of brand to help them imagine that life, choose it, and change their habits to live it.
Doing this would be difficult, no doubt. It would mean cooperating, not just competing – in real networks, not just nominal ones. It would mean agreeing what ‘the good life’ stands for, and standing by it, together. Only awarding ourselves for work that sells it. Only accepting briefs from clients who are committed to selling it. Maybe even withholding our services completely from clients who can’t sell it, especially the biggest ones. It would mean recognising that the climate crisis is not a story – it is the setting within which all stories must now take place.
It would also mean flying the flag ourselves. Becoming Bcorps, like Havas have. Building dedicated teams as Wieden + Kennedy are doing. Using resources like Adgreen and Nice and Serious’s moral compass. We can’t be perfect, but we must be better. Because if people – our industry, clients, customers – don’t think that we care, they won’t care what we think. To get others to live ‘the good life’, we need to live it ourselves.
And life really is the right word here. This is not about saving the planet. This is about regenerating the planet so that life can thrive. All life, but very much including human life. We need to stay at 1.5º of heating. 2º heating will kill 150m people from pollution alone – double the number of deaths from World War 2. Some argue that this crisis will require a mobilisation greater than that war – with impacts like that, it’s easy to see why.
World War 2 had a few powerful leaders, the climate crisis will need many. The message for the industry is clear – “we are the leaders we have been waiting for” – it’s on us to define and embody the change we want to see. This is not about hope, it’s about collective courage. Courage to do the unprecedented thing, together. Courage to reimagine ‘the good life’, and live it. Courage to do that today.
So the ultimate question is: do we have that courage?
The conversation continues.


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