Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London.
Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London. ©

All photos by Joshua Ogden

Advertising Change

According to the United Nations, we are entering a decade of change. An unprecedented change in which ordinary people and corporations must drastically rethink the way they operate in order not only to become more sustainable. What role will creativity play in this process? What creative techniques could become useful tools to help inspire change? We speak to Joshua Ogden, Creative Director, to learn how the creativity of the advertising industry could be applied to global challenges like climate change.

VERB: advertise
Make (a quality or fact) known.

Last year a good friend asked me, ‘What if you put all your thought, time and energy into treating the environmental crisis as a creative brief. What would that look like?’

I believe that the creativity underpinning the advertising industry’s approach to shaping behaviour and executing persuasive campaigns has the potential to be an incredible tool in the coming decade. Advertising, by its very nature, seeks to change perception on a given topic; to entice audiences to products, drumming up love for a brand or humanising inaccessible organisations. In short, advertising has the power to turn lofty, abstract ideas into action.

An article written by Nathaniel Rich boldly states that, ‘If by some miracle we are able to limit global warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs,  sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf’. Two-degree warming has been described as a ‘prescription for long-term disaster’ and, as Rich points out, long-term disaster is now our best-case scenario. 

Rich’s article presents the crisis with alarming clarity, but the reality is that thought pieces like his reach a limited audience, those with an existing sympathy to the cause and an existing understanding of the subject. When did the climate conversation become white noise? We need creativity to get people – at scale – to stop brushing off the crisis. How do we incite the sense of urgency that a long-term disaster deserves?

Creativity to: rebrand the climate narrative 

It’s clear to me there is a disastrous branding issue with climate change - but one that is entirely solvable. As with any successful exercise in branding, there are a handful of universal questions:

  1. Is the branding unique? Not only from the actions it inspires, but from the immediate, visceral reaction to its visual codes such as typography choices, colour palettes and how the two interact.
  2. Does the brand hold an ‘untold’ narrative? Does it create a universe that you feel part of? Or want to feel part of?
  3. Does the brand cross genres? This part, if done correctly is the most important. When a brand reflects an inclusive audience, it has a greater reach, a greater sense of community and often, a more powerful impact.

The climate movement answers these questions poorly, at best. 

Ask someone to draw a logo or icon for climate change. Most likely, it will be green, feature a polar bear and include messaging saying ‘One World’ or similar. Predictable? Yes. Effective? Unfortunately not. 

Why is the biggest preventable tragedy of our time so badly represented? Why is it called ‘climate change’ and not simply, ‘human survival’? For myself and design and communications creatives, this opens up the opportunity for writing one of the greatest briefs of our time: make people think twice about the climate.

Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London.
Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London.
Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London.
Climate change activists Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London.

Creativity to: open eyes

An interesting shift has already begun to unfold. At the end of March, London was all but shut down by a non-violent yet disruptive movement; Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR. XR understood their audience and the tools required to connect to that audience, and they understood who to work with to ensure the message had the greatest possible reach.

First, XR identified their primary support as youth, positioning themselves perfectly alongside the already powerful ‘school strike’ movement kicked-off by Greta Thunberg. Then, XR quickly gained momentum by using an almost identical model to a brand pushing a product launch. They used Instagram as a primary communication tool, used strong brand symbolism to form a clean graphic identity, and worked with brand ambassadors such as Jack and Finn Harries who, between them, have more social reach than most professional football players. Genius. 

From there, XR moved into a physical presence with impressive speed. They started with a strong singular message, ‘Rebel for life’. This gave others the tools and freedom to join in and co-develop the climate message they saw as most relevant, be it through a personal video, printed messages or even parking a boat on Oxford Circus. The result was an inclusive, social-first call-to-arms to challenge the status quo, which led the UK government to declare a climate emergency on 1 May.

XR have built fantastic brand awareness - by the end of March almost every British media outlet was talking about ‘Rebelling for life’. The topic had entered the everyday. Now, the difficult question is: how do we collectively start to change for the better and keep the momentum created by XR? This is where current advertising agencies working with brands can help.

In a public letter, XR said, ‘As mediators between the public and brands, the advertising industry is uniquely capable of driving rapid behavior-change across society, around the world and should take the lead rather than be driven’. Now, the industry needs to come together to figure out what ‘climate emergency’ means, and how to make it resonate with the general public. 

It will require creativity to ring the alarm bell for lifestyle change. Changing the way we think, do business and live our lives requires us to take a step back from the status quo, reconsider and reimagine fundamental aspects of the world we live in, and come up with alternative and sustainable solutions. 

Creativity to: educate and inspire

David Wrenne is the Programme Director of the BA (Hons) Graphic Communication course at Cardiff School of Art & Design. We discussed the role of language and design, and whether graphic design can help ‘save the world’. 

David feels that the education sector has a responsibility, not least to teach the creative skills that are needed to build and adapt to a new world. Design education in particular has the potential to equip future design creatives to push beyond the expected commercially focused ‘industry’ and respond to real-life challenges. 

In the book ‘Developing Citizen Designers’, Elizabeth Resnick discusses the concept of social design as a way of encouraging designers and creative professionals to adopt a ‘proactive role to effect tangible change to make life better for others, rather than sell them products and services they neither need nor want’. The Graphic Communication course at Cardiff School of Art and Design / Cardiff Metropolitan University does precisely this, focusing on social design creating tangible change. The course collaborates with a broad range of charities, nonprofits and medical researchers, training our students to use empathy to respond to real world problems, where people and the issues they face are at the forefront. 

So to return to the question, can creative communication save our world? David’s answer is ‘yes’, but only if design thinking strategies are employed by the business graduates and creative students of tomorrow, empowering them to reimagine even the biggest corporations from the inside out. In essence, instilling in them the belief that creativity, communication, business and climate all need to work together. Critical and creative thinking should be at the core of every practice over the next decade, not solely design and advertising. 

For my part, I am starting to take vastly different types of work than previous years. I am trying to think at all times ‘what does it actually mean to be a brand* in 2020?’.

*project, organisation, NGO or person.

One project I am working with is a brand new initiative for the UN called ‘UN Live, Museum for the United Nations.’ Part of the mission, is to ‘connect 15-25-year-olds to the UN and to help action and educate this already inspired age group. We are starting to look at the learnings from movements such as XR and we can start to plan test pilot projects all over the world. Basically operating, in a way akin to an innovation hub, experimenting with communication, design and science. Which is why I am excited to see how this can develop and move forward.

To sum up, the fact that we are, by chance, alive during this time of disruption is a challenge for our generation. However, the need to collaborate across all sectors, as a creative brief, is so exciting. 

For further reading on this topic:

A change makers guide for circularity.
Thomas J. Demos. (2017). Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today. Sternberg Press.