Is satire a useful tool for climate change communications? (And some F-bombing)
Some days the climate change debate is so awfully absurd that it’s a toss up between whether to laugh or cry. Most days, in fact. On one hand,
Apr 23, 2014
Some days the climate change debate is so awfully absurd that it’s a toss up between whether to laugh or cry. Most days, in fact. On one hand,
Some days the climate change debate is so awfully absurd that it’s a toss up between whether to laugh or cry. Most days, in fact.
On one hand, we hear that leaders of the IMF, World Bank and UN are pushing for a price on carbon, and that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is calling for an anti-apartheid style boycott of the fossil fuel industry, and the New York Times says we are running out of time for effective action.
On the other hand, there is Attorney General George Brandis suggesting that those who grasp the seriousness of climate change are ignorant and medieval, the Federal Government’s chief business advisor Maurice Newman is promoting denialism, and Clive Palmer’s latest intervention, which The Guardian describes as the latest in our “sorry climate policy saga”.
But there is some good news for those in search of intelligent, informed debate and analysis – the five top essays in the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay Competition, examining climate change and equity concerns, are now available in a free e-book. A warm shout-out to Inside Story (Peter Browne) and the Sydney School of Public Health (Glenn Salkeld) for making this happen.
The essays are:
While the essays offer quite different perspectives, there are some common themes, including the need to better engage the mainstream in the need for action, and to clearly identify the fossil fuels industry as the problem.
One possibility not directly explored in the book is the potential for satire to help with this reframing of the debate (an idea recently canvassed in this article, Climate change and the Koch brothers walk into a bar….published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).
Perhaps this clip below offers ways forward? (NB: Language alert!) Film maker John Nikolakopoulos explains below the clip how it came about, and also you will find some comments from public health and communications experts on the merits of his approach.
John Nikolakopoulos explains the background to the clip
The idea came about from my routine 5am walks around Centennial Park, brainstorming ideas into my iPhone voice recorder. From idea to final film was over a few weekends in January and February.
My background in Social Research, Filmmaking, Branding and Communications Strategy not only made me aware of the deep disconnect between the climate change message and the average disengaged Australian, but also provided me the tools to give a response.
Apart from a small token sum to the actors, it was all done by me for no money.
The real audience for the piece, which explains why I left it slightly longer and gave it a non viral title, is the board of BHP. Dean dalla valle, Baroness von Shriti, Andrew McKenzie, Jac Nasser etc.
The original film directly referenced them in the titles but it was eventually obvious these direct references weren’t necessary. The end monologue taps directly into a corporate mindset. People do not climb to the top without a fierce commitment to their company values, even if it is at the expense of their own, or human life. I hope they, or their children, see it.
The secondary audience is a less engaged public. For those who understand the science, the communication strategy of ‘lets teach the science so that the world understands our panic and lets us fix it’ is BAD.
It disempowers the general public, the message they see is, we want to take your power away.
The people who understand the problem try to explain it to those who are not geared towards understanding, and are then turned off by what then appears as unjustified histrionics.
Humour that reveals the hypocrisy of institutions is much more empowering to the average person, by disempowering the corporate elites.
In other videos I have in the pipeline, I also use humour, pragmatism, storytelling and other tools to help people listen to the climate change message in a way that empowers them and compels them to act.
I have received dozens of emails and have met with people from all over the world via Skype, looking for help with their climate communications. There is one organisation that is now filming a remake of the video for their work in fighting against the Keystone pipeline.
I have about six other ideas I am hoping to roll out as I find the time.
I am also formulating a list of essential traits that climate change communications must have to connect with a disengaged public. I am not into preaching to the choir.
There are four climate change arguments: Science, Economics, Politics and emotional Addressing these four arguments and separating them in the minds of the public goes a long way.
We are thankfully in a new stage of the climate debate where the economic argument is finally in the endgame of winning. So this should be the key for any communication and I have a few ideas around this provided I can find funding.
The trick of Climate denial has been to pretend they are arguing science, but they are in fact impeding science education to the broader public to maintain general ignorance as a political lever.
They will fall further into irrelevance as the economic arguments for action strengthen, especially in rural areas where the big issues are around windmills versus fracking wells on their land.
The latest polls showing a drop in support of the Coalition for the Greens in the regional electorates reflects this victory of economics and pragmatism which will energise the renewable power shift faster than political or moral arguments.
How effective is this clip?
GP Dr Tim Senior, winner of the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay competition
How should we communicate about climate change? As we realise that just discussing the scientific facts doesn’t have the traction required to stimulate change, this seems to be the question of the moment. I wrote about it, and Crikey have run a series of articles on it.
Right on cue, a case study! The main talking point with this video will be the language. There are some jokes, which like infantile school humour, relies just on the presence of an F-word to make you laugh. They are rarely funny. Others use an f-bomb because that is the only word that will do. This video falls into that category. We need strong language to describe what is being done to our climate.
Everyone now thinks they know what climate stories will look like. We need stories on climate change to have something different – either something different to say or a new way of saying it.
This video, using a good parody of a corporate video, exposes the gap between what we all know to be true, and the behaviour of coal companies.
I certainly found it impossible to look at the Australians for Coal website (or the subsequent tweet-mocking) without thinking of this video – job done, I’d say. The main audience will be those already sympathetic to the message.
Whether it encourages more people to divest from coal shares (or whether people realised this was the message) remains to be seen.
There is no single killer message that will change everyone’s mind. The IPCC reports and realistic reporting of them is still needed, backed up by features, stories, even poems and songs. Next step is for The Checkout to do a feature on it. Perhaps followed by Peppa Pig.
Associate Professor Lucie Rychetnik, University of Notre Dame (and a Gavin Mooney Memorial Essays author)
Well it certainly made me chortle – thanks.
I think it adopts the ‘name it for what it is’ approach which is never a bad thing in my view – especially when responding to the coal industry’s incredibly irresponsible stance. I guess they could argue they are being ‘responsible’ to the their shareholders….but in this case the costs to everyone else are too great to let them get away with it.
And yes I agree this ‘name and shame via satire’ approach could well be adopted for other topics. Maybe we have all been way too polite for too long when it comes to companies or groups undertaking actions that harm large numbers of people to benefit just a few.
I don’t know about the potential for legal action though – would be worth getting a legal perspective?
Actually, it kind of has the same feel as the Bugga Up campaigns of previous decades…just a bit more gritty in the language. But that seems in tune with the importance and urgency of the issue to me!
Professor Simon Chapman, University of Sydney
The ad will go down a treat among people who already share its intended message. They will feel a tribal affirmation that they don’t belong to the corporate world shown. It’s them, not us. They will chortle over some of the great lines in it. It will get a few hundred thousand hits. It will get lots of tweets, and I’ll be one who does that.
Shaming and discrediting strategies have an important role in political change. But I’m sorry to say it will do little to engage or change those who are apathetic about climate change, whose heads are filled with self-exempting beliefs about why they needn’t worry, or who belong to tribes who mistrust science.
The actors in it speak a language that few ordinary people ever encounter. So it will go right over most heads. It’s robotic cast may be funny to those of us who get the tragedy. But their emotionless convolutions will see those we hope it might influence reach for the delete key.”
Croakey moderator Michelle Culhane Hughes
I was sent this clip with the message “imagine this is the fast food industry” and I thought, yes that about sums it up. I think these sort of parodies work really well for getting the message out. Humour is always a great way to take a message to a broader audience.
In public health it is easy to be seen as overwrought nanny staters and doomsayers but I think if we can reflect back the ridiculous (and accepted) behaviours that are feeding the inequities in population health it may be easier to sell the message.
Instead of telling individuals what to do, can we point out the ridiculousness of the corporate behaviours feeding the problem?
Writer Lea McInerney
Depends on who the target audience is. Could be just preaching to the converted. Or further polarising the debate.
Regarding the language – while I’m a reasonably well-adjusted occasional user of such language, I find it jarring in something like this.
It’s a bit long for such a skit (again, depends on target audience).
This article on ‘negative’ messages was recently in NYT – don’t agree with it all, but some interesting aspects. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/09/opinion/global-warming-scare-tactics.html?ref=opinion&_r=1
Re public health/health promotion messages – am more interested in finding the positives for people – the vision in this 10 year plan for physical activity is an example – see page 7 here http://bit.ly/RjPPGL. And website here http://www.getmoving.tas.gov.au/tppa/home.
Principles of social marketing worth a look – the idea of analysing benefits and barriers to the behavioural change that’s needed – some material here if you’re interested http://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/cdcynergy/cdcynergylite.html. There would be good Australian examples too.
Health communications expert Ross Green
I like it. It’s funny and conveys its message clearly and emphatically. It’s well-scripted, with some very memorable lines in there. It felt like a big corporation ‘sell’, albeit a long one though.
As a piece of communication, I think it’s clear on what it’s saying, but I’m not sure how well it will work in terms of shifting people’s mindsets or changing behaviours.
In terms of public health applications, the approach could be interesting as a way to raise awareness – it’s along the same lines as the recent and startling #fuckthepoor campaign [http://youtu.be/eBuC_0-d-9Y] from the Pillion Trust in the UK. The difference being the #fuckthepoor has a clear path to action and making a change, via donations.
Incidentally, Fuck The Poor is also a wonderful song by Australian comedian Tim Minchin [http://youtu.be/YcLAJbvwNQU].
So to raise awareness for public health issues such an approach might be worth exploring, as a way to cut through the ‘noise’ and get traction. A Big Food parody springs to mind straight away.
PS from Croakey – more about the campaign at the Huffington Post.
Professor David Shearman, Doctors for the Environment Australia
We have to get tougher with these guys in PH communication
Dr Ginny Barbour, Medicine Editorial Director, PLOS
This approach is interesting isn’t it?
I really wonder how much effect it has when it is, as I suspect, only circling among people like us, who are already converted.
There is obviously a big debate to be had about the way to influence people and I suspect that this type of thing would puzzle most people – and it takes too long to get to its point.
My sense is that we have to be much more radical – appealing to story telling or even to humour to get people’s attention.
The Wake the F up Obama campaign in 2012 probably had more popular appeal – though I gather that divided people also.
Professor Rob Moodie, University of Melbourne
It’s good – humour, parody has been used quite a lot (Tobacco – Alf Garnett, John Clarke) .
Public health unfortunately has the need to point out the reality of products that are promoted as only positives – that provide fun, taste, relaxation, attractiveness, coolness, ease, convenience. And the advertisers can use a number of approaches – they use humour a lot (e.g. Beer ads), but not necessarily parody.
Public health has to use many emotional pulls/pushes – fact, fear, potential loss.
In the case of climate change I think it has been the huge spend, and profound influence of the energy industries (combined with a very sympathetic media demanding “balance”) that has paralysed the community.
The other interesting opportunity is in e-BUGAUP – altering on line ads e.g. as we saw with the ‘other’ version of Cokes contribution to the world.
Steve Campbell, Director, Enviropraxis PL (and a Gavin Mooney Memorial Essays author)
This one has been around for a little while. I first saw it about a month ago. A classic bit of agit-prop.
Personally, I think that it’s very funny, and I hope that many coal executives see it and have a good twinge of guilt. I also hope that folks in the finance sector see it, and take steps to shift their investments away from fossil fuel.
Beyond that, I’m not sure if it communicates well with a public audience who are either not across the issues, turned off by the issues or in denial.
For most environmentalists though it’s the sort of thing that gives us a moment of light relief in a world that is mostly full of thankless work, darkness and challenge.
John Flannery, Media and Public Affairs Director, Australian Medical Association
Climate change is a very divisive issue in Australia, politically and within the broader community. The key to winning the debate is winning the middle ground – the so-called ordinary Australians.
This campaign is very well-intentioned but it is preaching to the converted – the very converted.
There is no doubt this will be a smash hit in social media – but more for the ‘Fuck You’ slogan than for the important details about the damaging effects of climate change.
People will watch this and think it very clever. It is clever. And it is well written and acted. Unfortunately, the takeaway message will be the slogan, not the more meaningful messages buried in the over-long script.
The verdict – it will not shift a vote in the middle ground.
Global health advocate Dr Alessandro Demaio
Whilst I don’t support the use of swearing, I do support the use of humour in communicating urgent social issues and calling for collective, community action.
For too long, messaging around climate change has been negative, overwhelming and paralysing – as I have written about previously, this doesn’t work. Climate becomes a taboo topic; a conversation killer instead of a conversation. Focusing our messaging on opportunities, on intelligent humour and on the ridiculous ironies at play is a powerful and I believe, effective communications method.
Meanwhile, an uprising of satire
As was widely reported recently, the latest PR campaign from the coal industry, Australians for Coal, generated an immediate social media uprising (see Business Spectator, The Guardian, and Buzz Feed).
And some other creative examples of public health communications
Climate name change
A symphony of science and Al Gore on climate science
Meanwhile, The Lancet gets creative on YouTube, urging health professionals to engage in transformation for planetary health.
Perhaps you’ve some other links to add?
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