Grassroots Green Mobilization: The Ultimate Marketing Task

As a kid, I mainly dreamed of becoming a writer, an artist, a psychologist, and a fashion designer when I grew up. I never dreamed I would take on what I would come to consider as the ultimate marketing job. But in fact, that is what being a self-appointed sustainability educator is to me: Persuading people that it’s in their best interest to take care of the planet.

In college, I took marketing classes with a vague notion of “taking something practical” (i.e. to balance out my “impractical” major in English literature). I never imagined I would come to consider marketing an essential skill for persuading people to care for the environment.

Marketing is telling someone a story in order to motivate them to change their behavior in some direction you consider positive. Sometimes the story includes factual information, but just as often it is a purely subjective or emotional appeal. In social movements, the “positive direction” is presumably some beneficial shift on the planet. People stop using insecticides, stop buying snacks that contain palm oil, that kind of thing. In a corporation, “positive” might just mean “Consumers start buying our product so we can get paid.” 

Where the environmental movement has gone wrong in the past, in my opinion, is by bombarding people (developers, city commissioners, presidents, everyday citizens) with scientific information, and expecting that information to make a shift in people’s behavior, and being utterly baffled when it did not. Rather than take a page from scientists’ books (or in addition to doing that), we might do better to take a page from marketing textbooks!

Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I observed how odors of cooking in a house came to be considered as a sign of a slovenly hostess. “Fried fish again for dinner last night, Ruthie?” squawked the bitchy neighbor in an air-freshener commercial. Or how about those “Ring Around the Collar” commercials. Ugh!

The multi-billion-dollar lawn-maintenance industry was sparked by landscaping companies that applied chemicals to grass to make it super green. The people in the neighboring house felt ashamed that their grass didn’t look as green (or as perfectly clipped) as that other guy’s, and so the demand for chemically based lawn services skyrocketed. An artificially green, rigidly manicured lawn has become a signifier of good neighborliness, prosperity, and overall decent citizenry.

One of the most startling and (to me) offensive marketing feats I can think of, is the “personal hygiene” industry’s success in conveying to women that their vagina “smells”, and/or is “dirty,” and needs to be disinfected with pine-scented or floral-scented chemicals in order to make her desirable sexually or even a halfway decent human being. I mean, who would buy this?? But lots of people do. Shame is a powerful driver. Just tap into someone’s shame, combined with their desire to be sexually attractive, and watch what happens. This has been going on for decades at least. I’ve seen magazine ads from the 1920s, warning women not to get complacent about holding onto their husbands’ affection, and offering some scented chemical liquid as insurance. 

Not long ago I read an article about a woman who developed a product that creates a film over the water in your toilet, so the smell of your poo is covered up. This product has made millions of dollars so far. Millions! Poo-Pourri, a spray made from essential oils that traps unpleasant odors below the surface of the toilet water, has sold 60 million bottles since it came out in 2007 (See “Suzy Batiz’s Empire of Odor” in The New Yorker.) How much easier and less expensive could life be if we humans couldn’t be so readily shamed about the fact that our poop, like everyone else’s, stinks!?

But how about if we were to use marketing for the good? So, instead of harnessing people’s shame and fear to hawk unnecessary and sometimes damaging products, how might we leverage human emotion to motivate people to take better care of Mother Earth?

Here are some things I’ve typically seen used as marketing points for products. Buy our product, and you’ll get this desirable attribute:

Cuteness

Sex appeal

Hipness, being up on things, not being behind the times

Being in the know

Freedom 

Convenience

Comfort

Relaxation

Prospect of being famous, a hero

Pondering this list, I thought of a couple of eco ads:

1) Two young beautiful surfers, one male and one female, are walking along the beach together, carrying their boards. Surfer Dude is trying to impress the girl, and she looks interested, until he offers her a bottle of bottled water. She stops dead in her tracks, and says, “Wait. You’re a surfer, but you drink bottled water?” Camera pans across the sand, showing it littered with plastic bottles. Her expression turns cold, and Surfer Dude stands there looking foolish.

2) Two women are standing next to each other in the kitchen of one of the women. The guest sniffs the air and looks at the hostess, says “Ewww, what’s that smell?” The hostess opens the cabinet, sees that the trash is the source of the odor, looks embarrassed. The friend says, with shocked look, “Um … Do you not compost your food scraps? Do you just throw them in the trash? No wonder your trash stinks! Hold on honey, I can fix that for you in a jiffy!”

Now, an obvious weakness of both these ads is that they don’t sell any product; they just shame someone for a non-eco-friendly practice. But the bottled water shaming commercial could be used to sell reusable steel water bottles, or filters. Or a water dispenser where you can fill up your reusable bottle. And the composting commercial could be used to sell a vermicompost bin, or composting classes! I envision both ads having a sort of retro flavor like those hygiene-shaming commercials of yore. 

What other eco commercials can you think of? Put on your marketing hat! It might be fun to have a YouTube channel dedicated to mock eco commercials. 

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