What the environmental movement can learn from anti-smoking ads

(© moxduul via istockphoto)

To create a more sustainable global society, it is critical for companies to increase demand for green products and services — and advertising might hold the answer. (© moxduul via istockphoto)

In the early 2000s, the number of young people who smoked cigarettes in the United States dropped by about 40%. Public knowledge about the health hazards of cigarettes was nothing new — so why the sudden decline?

As it turns out, a single marketing campaign may have been largely responsible for the shift. Now it’s time for the environmental movement to follow suit.

The idea first came to me this summer, when I witnessed a fascinating conversation between Conservation International (CI) chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann and Bob Langert, editor-at-large for Greenbiz and former vice president for sustainability at McDonald’s.

The discussion, during the annual meeting of CI’s Business & Sustainability Council, focused on why the NGO community has not been able to move the needle on consumer environmental consciousness, and more important, how companies and NGOs need to work strategically on a solution. (Bob had initially addressed these issues in an Earth Day blog post on Greenbiz.)

The truth about marketing

To create a more sustainable global society, it is critical for consumers to better understand the role nature plays in our everyday lives — from filtering the water we drink to providing resilient supplies of food. One of Bob’s key points was that consumer interest in sustainability has lagged far behind the sea change that has taken place within many corporations. I agree with this perspective; however, the NGO community should not alone bear the burden of responsibility when it comes to consumers’ lack of interest in all things green.

Global advertising spending in 2015 is expected to be nearly US$ 600 billion. This causes an enormous amount of clutter, and even the most creative campaign will not have the needed impact without the resources to break through the noise. We need leadership from the marketing and advertising community.

Further reading

To truly move the needle toward a culture of sustainability, we need the equivalent of the youth anti-smoking campaign of the early 2000s. This campaign was launched as part of the Master Settlement Agreement between five major U.S. tobacco companies and more than 46 states. The settlement called for significant resources for the creation of a national public health foundation dedicated to tobacco control: The American Legacy Foundation.

The foundation created the “Truth” campaign, a long-term marketing and communications push to change attitudes about smoking. The campaign was financed with a US$ 100 million media budget per year for the first several years, with additional funding for other public education activities. It was developed and executed with a prominent advertising agency and has been credited with having a major impact on the decline in youth smoking during the early 2000s.

This magazine advertisement was part of the American Legacy Foundation's "Truth" campaign to change attitudes about smoking in the early 2000s. (© Sean Dockery/Truth Campaign via Flickr Creative Commons)

This magazine advertisement was part of the American Legacy Foundation’s powerful “Truth” campaign to change attitudes about smoking in the early 2000s. (© Sean Dockery/Truth Campaign via Flickr Creative Commons)

What we need is a “Truth” campaign for sustainability. Changing people’s views of the planet will take time and sustained resources — resources that NGOs don’t have. A typical NGO approach to consumer outreach has been to develop a public service announcement model that relies on the whims of media companies to donate ad space — typically between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m.

A simple solution

Organizations like CI are primarily reliant on support from donors, who tend to want their money to go toward activities on the ground — such as clean drinking water for a community or halting deforestation in protected areas — rather than the less tangible advertising and marketing activities, even though they have the power to drive consumer demand and create potentially dramatic change. On the other hand, the private sector is best equipped to address consumer demand and drive purchasing decisions as that’s what they do every day — it’s in their DNA.

We’ve seen that creative content will resonate, but in order for the environmental community to have real impact, we need significant financial resources to sustain the creative messaging, engagement and prime media placement. This cannot be a piecemeal approach: Resources need to be channeled into a campaign that can develop consistent creative concepts aligned with paid media buys, sponsorships and other sustained promotions.

CI has created the first piece of such a campaign with Nature Is Speaking, a series of provocative, celebrity-narrated short films that emphasize the fact that nature doesn’t need people, but people need nature. Produced in partnership with the advertising agency TBWA/Media Arts Lab, the campaign has garnered more than 2 billion impressions, and its films have been viewed over 30 million times in the U.S., China, Hong Kong and Brazil. In June, one of the films, “The Ocean,” won a Cannes Gold Lion award.

(© Conservation International)

(© Conservation International)

Our challenge now is to build the infrastructure to move this campaign forward in a sustained manner. So, I propose a simple solution inspired by the successful model of the “Truth” campaign — without involving litigation, as the “Truth” campaign did!

The top 100 advertisers in the U.S. currently spend approximately US$ 190 billion each year on marketing. If a small percentage of those companies can see that it is in their enlightened self-interest to shift a tiny fraction of their vast marketing budgets to increase demand for green products and services, then perhaps we can realize the challenge that Bob Langert has laid out and achieve a culture of sustainability.

Adam Schoenberg is the senior director of corporate relations in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


  1. Pamela William says

    Although I agree that a campaign is a terrific idea, I don’t believe the ‘short film’ route will accomplish the intended end. The smoking campaign worked because it was everywhere, including in health classes, T.V., radio, doctor’s offices….The short films will be watched by those already concerned about the environment but will not hold the attention of those scrolling through social media or armed with a remote. For every environmental post I see I’ll see two that discredit it. For example: I saw a post on Facebook recently with a headline that mentioned NASA, with them stating that the poles were actually colder. This insinuated that the ice sheets were not declining, and we environmentalist were crying wolf. Whether this was true or not I would hazard a guess that the doubtful and undecided read the headline, absorbed its message and moved on. Who released this message and the data to actually support the message became irrelevant due to the perceived NASA credibility. Facts presented clearly, concisely, and briefly will in my personal opinion have more impact on the general public.

  2. Todd S. says

    Agreed. It’s a great idea but given the rapidly declining attention span of Americans, we need to focus our limited resources on short, concise messages — in media outlets that typically see few if any environmentalists. How about a print ad campaign in Sports Illustrated, People, Us Weekly, and Parade magazine?

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