February 1st, 2010
This Sunday will be the 44th annual Super Bowl, the most widely viewed television event of the year. What that means for advertisers is lots and lots of “eyeballs,” as they like to call it. Traditionally it’s the ultimate testing ground for television commercials, but in recent years, people with agendas have slowly woken up and said to themselves, “Hey, if corporations can ‘message’ about their beer or soft drink, why can’t we also ‘message’ about our political issue?” In this essay I share a few thoughts on this, going back to 2002, when the environmental world could have had a chance to make a mark, if there had been anyone with the money brave enough.
2002: THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET FOR A SUPER BOWL AD TO SAVE THE OCEANS
In 2002 I was summonsed to a meeting of top ocean scientists studying the biodiversity of the world’s oceans who had come to the realization that a crisis was approaching with the impending potential loss of species diversity. They asked me to give a fifteen minute talk about how to get their message out to the nation. In front of 150 scientists and with at least one billionaire in the audience I threw caution to the wind and shot from the hip. I said the solution was simple. Give me $2 million. I will spend $50,000 on producing a reasonably entertaining and interesting 30 second Public Service Announcement that will say their message, then we’ll spend the rest on buying a 30 second time slot during the Super Bowl. Regardless of quality, it would score so much add-on media exposure (if you doubt this, take a look at the ABC News clip below that was from a couple years later) simply by being present in the highest profile communication forum in the nation. Even if the spot was amateurish, made no sense, and caused everyone viewing the Super Bowl to spit out their Doritos and say, “WTF?”, so long as it simply said, “We have a serious problem in our oceans,” it would have generated a ton of mainstream media discussion about, “Are the problems in the ocean really that severe that it’s worth spending $2 million dollars on it?” And the ocean conservation community could have answered with a loud and resounding “YES!”.
My proposition split the audience immediately. Two thirds of the group (which included all the journalists present) said it was a wonderful idea (some very loudly and enthusiastically). The other third was led by a Scandinavian fisheries biologist who literally said, “This is the lowest level I’ve ever heard science communication sink to.” Later that evening a friend spoke to the billionaire, asking him what he thought of my talk. The billionaire is a nice old guy, and he replied with a smile that he thought my talk was, “Cute.”
But was my idea just silly? No. Look at this ABC News segment from February 2008 posing the same question for presidential candidates in the last election.
This clip tells you all you need to know about how to communicate bravely.
ENTRENCHED MEDIOCRITY IN THE WORLD OF CANCER RESEARCH
So why didn’t anyone seriously consider my suggestion in 2002? Is it that $2 million was too large of a sum to spend on communicating ocean conservation? No. As Jennifer Jacquet has detailed, ocean conservation groups have spent well beyond $30 million in the past decade in what is largely seen as a failed effort to communicate to the public about over-fishing via “seafood wallet cards.” For some reason that approach to “messaging” has been perceived as being a very safe and rational expenditure, where throwing $2 million in a single shot at a Super Bowl ad would probably be seen as reckless. But is this also a divide between thinking that is banal versus bold?
I was once a scientist at a mediocre research institution and was pulled aside by a senior scientist there who said, “Listen, you need to slow down. We enjoy our easy going pace here. We know we’re not M.I.T. You’re just making people feel bad by pushing so much.” I took it in and wasn’t that surprised. But I really WAS surprised last summer when I read about this attitude at the much larger scale of the entire national research scheme for funding cancer research. In this amazing article in the NY Times, the author reveals that the entire national situation for funding cancer research has become, “A sort of jobs program.” There is widespread agreement that there are many solutions to major cancer problems which could be discovered, but the system has become too cautious to support reaching in such risky directions. The bottom line: most everyone in the system would rather remain employed and not rock the boat than to actually take some chances and go where the real solutions lie.
EFFECTIVE MASS COMMUNICATORS: THE FEW, THE PROUD, THE BRAVE
So I hate to be a cynic, but even worse, I hate to live in fantasyland (even though I do work in “Lalaland”!). We like to think of our society as a bunch of “Can Do!” folks who simply need to figure out “The SOLUTIONS, dammit!” to the problems, then go to work on solving things. But the rather grim truth is that there’s a great deal of entrenched, agreed-upon non-solving of problems when the process involves risk.
And when it comes to communicating with the general public, there’s no point in even dreaming of achieving effective mass communication if you’re not willing to take on considerable risk. I have a lot of critical things to say about Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” some of which you’ll see in upcoming essays. But I also have plenty of praise for what they did, and I think the most admirable thing was the amount of risk they took with the project. I mentioned in the book that when I was at the Tribeca Film Festival with my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” in 2006 talking with distributors, the Al Gore movie was the standing joke. They were drawing on all of their (extremely limited) professional savvy in predicting that the movie would make about $1 million at the box office because, “Who’s gonna wanna pay to see a Powerpoint talk?”
Those would be your classic risk-averse losers talking (who by the way watched most of their independent film distribution business crumble over the next three years, in large part because they repeatedly put their money behind dull, boring movies that they thought would be safe bets but weren’t), while “An Inconvenient Truth,” went on to earn over $50 million in worldwide box office.
Effective mass communication is about taking chances. Just look at the ABC News clip above. Look who was one of the greatest winners in Super Bowl history — the website host Go Daddy. They took HALF of their resources and (being KEENLY aware of the 4 organs theory I present in the first chapter of my book) gambled it on a super sexy Super Bowl commercial. The owner says in the clip, in retrospect, “The decision was as right as rain.”
You’re about to see high risk communication at it’s best this weekend with the commercials for Super Bowl 44. It would be nice if some of “the powers that be” in the funding of environmental and science communication were to watch the Super Bowl and be thinking in these terms. There is a constant refrain in science and environmentalism of, “We’re not communicating these issues as well as we should.” The real problem is that the same people filing these complaints turn around and support the same old risk averse strategies for communicating. I once spoke to the board of a major conservation group and one of the board members agreed with me, citing the old saying of, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.” That sort of behavior and thinking, I believe, are the biggest sources of failure in the communication of science and environmentalism.
And by the way, guess who the website host is for this website.