The thing about humans is that we usually only react to danger when it is immediate and apparent. So, when the bear came into the cave of our neanderthal ancestors, their ‘flight or fight’ response was invoked and they either ran away or got out their spears and stood their ground. Evolutionarily, we haven’t changed much and the problem with Climate Change is there is no Clear and Present Danger – you can’t see the build up of CO2 and the ice-caps are melting in far away lands. It may well be that we’ve already passed the point of no return, but it’s possible that we still won’t change the way we behave towards until the polar bear is in our front lawn trying to jump off his passing piece of ice into the living room.
This isn’t great, so it’s good to look for examples of how consumer behaviour has dramatically changed before it’s too late and seeing what we can learn. And there’s a great example of this at The Ministry of Food Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London.
The Ministry of Food was set up in September 1939 at the outset of the Second World War to manage the nations food suppy. One significant part of its work was a huge public information campaign to change how the Britain related to food in order to benefit the war effort. It was a huge exercise which influenced every aspect of the nation’s relationship with food – from encouraging people to grow their own, to what to eat and the need to minimise wastage. So, it is a great example of consumer change at a national level that provides many pointers for the modern day Climate Change fraternity. These include:
Establish the result.
In war it’s fairly binary, you either win or lose. But clearly linking your actions to the final, positive result in a simple, memorable statement is a good start. It’s like ‘Just do it’, but with a purpose.
The interesting thing about Climate Change is how do we know when we’ve succeeded? At the moment it’s framed in the negative – the seas won’t rise; C02 levels won’t exceed certain levels. But where’s the positive? People are usually motivated by the addition of something positive, rather than the absence of negative. You don’t sell toothpaste on the fact that you’re teeth won’t fall out if you don’t use it. You sell it in the fact you have shiny, healthy teeth if you do.
Who’s the enemy?
Related to the above point, in the war the enemy was clear – the Nazis – clearly represented by Hitler and the swastika. They were the bad guys and clearly fitted into our age old concept of good vs. evil. With Climate Change, who is the enemy that we can clearly identify with? Is it Fossil Fuels? Oil companies? The West? The East? People going to the next Copenhagen? And how do you represent whichever you chose in a simple way that everyone can understand, as an idea and as an image? In a way, the Nazis made it easy for us to identify them and therefore to hate them.
The Ministry of Food took advantage of this and was able to not only talk about the positive consequence of acting in the right way, they also communicate what would happen if you didn’t.
There’s something really interesting in this, which is about linking a seemingly minor action to the broader war effort and ultimate victory. A lot of the behaviour change around Climate Change is like this – use less plastic bags, turn the heating down etc. etc. But, do we ever see them connected to the bigger goal in such a simple and effective way as this:
Another, and perhaps more powerful example than this was in the exhibtion. It encouaged you do eat potatoes andnot bread with you meal if you wanted to fill yourself up. The rationale was that the UK could produce its own potatoes but it had to import the wheat to make bread from North America. The wheat would come over in ships which ran the risk of being torpedoed by German subs. So, the message was ‘Eat Potatoes and Not Bread and Save Lives’.
This might be seen as a patronising now, but a great deal of the Ministry of Food output educated the nation about food. From what size of alloment you need and what to plant in it, to what food has the most nutritonal value, to how to build a chicken run. They produced an endless stream of informative, imaginative and educative material to keep people interested and motivated to act.
The Climate Change movement seems to be doing a good job of education (in the UK) and we becoming clear about what steps we need to take to minimise our own carbon emissions. However, if we were able to ‘Establish the Result’ and define a clear enemy could we expect to see a higher take-up of the activities we know we are supposed to perform?
Extend the metaphor.
This is a small point, but interesting. Below you can see how they extended the idea of the Allies vs. the Nazis into every part of the campaign in how they educated people about different varieties of guest in your garden:
Overall, when you go through the exhibition, you get a sense of the huge volume and variety of output that the Ministry of Food produced. From posters to pamphlets; from Food Flashes before movies to books. They seemed to cover every relevant message in every available outlet. I wonder what the equivalent media spend woudl have been today, but it seems likely that we haven’t seen many campaigns the size of it since. There is a degree of realism required when it comes to Climate Change – could the government ever pull off anything of this scale again? It could be argued that the government would need to spend even more money to turn things around because the market is saturated with commercial messages encouraging consumers to ‘buy and do more’, when any message from them would effectively be to ‘do less’. So, perhaps part of the strategy would be to halt some or all commerical advertising. Which wouldn’t go down well.
But did it work? Well we won the war, so people who did dig, did help the victory. But there was this more informative fact at the start of the exhibition which shows that they did manage to invoke a huge consumer change across the nation which would have resulted in thousands of people spending millions of hours in a new type of relationship with food, for the greater good. The challenge is, can we replicate something like this again for the benefit of saving the planet, rather than just Britain?: