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Q & A: The Hard Sell

The people who brought you the Geico gecko are now turning their minds to something more important: an ad campaign to create an army of green activists
An Interview with Matt Williams

With his 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore set a controversial precedent for winning a Nobel Peace Prize. His prizewinning work didn’t involve designing scientific experiments to measure global warming or crafting the strategies that would mitigate its impact. His purpose was to bring the issue to a mass audience and change the way people think. What won the Nobel was, essentially, an act of publicity. Now Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection is sinking $300 million into a new campaign called We, centered on a multimedia advertising blitz orchestrated by the Martin Agency, which last year landed the Wal-Mart account and is the brains behind Geico auto insurance’s popular gecko and cavemen ads. Curtis Brainard, who writes on media and the environment for the Columbia Journalism Review, sat down with Matt Williams, the ad campaign’s head strategist, to talk about putting what Williams calls “the motivational power of advertising” behind We’s effort to recruit, in the words of one newspaper, Gore’s “green army.” The goal is to enlist 10 million volunteers who will pressure the federal government to enact policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

People say one of the reasons you guys locked up the Wal-Mart con­tract was that they liked the fact you were here in Richmond, Virginia, rather than on Madison Avenue.

It’s a big advantage for us. Rich­mond is a place that feels like the places the vast majority of Ameri­cans live in. And because of that, we understand how those people live their lives, how they think about issues and brands.

People usually associate the word “brand” with a commercial product. Isn’t an advocacy campaign like this different?

Creating a brand is about creating a set of images and associations and getting people to behave in a certain way. The behaviors are different, of course, but the basic principle is very similar.

You talk about the vast majority of Americans. Is that who these ads are aimed at?

We’re talking first to a group of people we think of as influencers, folks who are really engaged in issues and involve the people around them in conversations. Then we’re thinking in terms of people who have traditionally been separated by differences in the way they see the world. So one of our ads has Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson in it, together -- people who are on very different sides of most issues but not this one.

Now that’s what you might call an odd couple. Who came up with that idea?

That was one of the ideas we presented to the alliance in the agency review process -- the idea that we need to put our dif­ferences aside, no matter how great they might be. Because the climate crisis affects everyone; it won’t discriminate according to whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat.

What kinds of emotions are you hoping to tap into? Your first ad showed troops storming the beaches at Normandy. So obviously there’s patriotism. But there’s also the negative side.There’s fear, there’s guilt.

You have to give people the right frame, the right way to think about this issue, which is what the introductory ad did. Let’s put this thing in its correct historical context. This is a challenge of the same historical magnitude as World War II, as putting a man on the moon.

There was a recent study from Texas A&M claiming that the more people know about global warming, the less they care, the more apathetic they are.

I haven’t seen the study, but we want to create a feeling of urgency without creating fear. We want to create a sense of hope and optimism that the problem is solvable. We don’t want people to just be stuck in one place getting bombarded by the facts and figures about climate change. That can have a bit of a paralyzing effect.

What about An Inconvenient Truth, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie The 11th Hour? There’s a lot of gloom and doom in those. Doesn’t that hurt you?

I don’t know that it hurts us. I mean, those two movies have lifted this issue to a level that it would never have been on otherwise. So what we’re trying to do is take the concern that has been created to the next level. Move people up the ladder of engagement.

Humor is something that’s worked very well for you, for ex­ample with the Geico gecko and the cavemen. Does humor have any place in a campaign about global warming?

Yeah, I think it might, if it’s done in the right way. As advertising people, we’ve known for years that humor is a good way to en­gage people -- although I’m not sure Geico-style humor would be exactly right for talking about the climate crisis.

Your president, Mike Hughes, says the Geico campaign was aimed at getting a direct response rather than the long-term philosophy of building the brand. Does the same thing apply to the We campaign, where the direct response you’re looking for is signing up 10 million activists?

One of the things we learned from Geico is that those two things are not mutually exclu­sive. You can build a brand, and in building that brand you can create immediate changes in behavior. It’s not enough, either in business or in the We campaign, to simply make people feel warm and fuzzy toward the brand. We have to get people to take that good feeling and translate it immediately into action.

The Geico caveman started off on TV but the ads spawned a completely different online presence called the Caveman’s Crib.

It’s amazing what happens when advertising becomes part of the cultural conversation. With the caveman it spawned Web sites, it spawned blogs that just sprang up out of nowhere. The climate crisis needs to be in the cultural conversation in the same way. So there will be a lot of online communica­tions. The idea behind our site, wecansolveit.org, is that whatever your reason for coming there, you’ll find something that can get you more concretely engaged in the climate crisis.

What other media are you going to be targeting?

We’re going to be running in lots of very mass-oriented media. You’re going to see us in People magazine, on American Idol.

Newspapers?

Yeah, some newspapers. We broke the advertising campaign in the New York Times and the Washington Post.

This campaign has been compared to the famous fried-egg ad, “This is your brain on drugs.” But that approach can wane very quickly if it’s not selling the product of the year.

It’s a big challenge with advocacy-oriented campaigns, because issues come and issues go. But if we can start the conversation happening in the right way, then it’s like rolling a rock down a hill; hopefully it’ll keep rolling faster and faster. It’s certainly a help to have somebody like Al Gore involved in this. In one meeting with us, he leaned across the table, looked Mike Hughes in the eye, and said, “We cannot fail. We cannot fail.” That kind of sends shivers down your spine.

So how often does Gore check in with you guys?

He’s very involved. We talk to him every couple weeks. He has lots of input into the creative process.

What do you have to show him in terms of return on investment? Because that’s the industry buzzword.

We have to show progress toward signing up 10 million people, and that needs to progress as fast as it possibly can.

That’s quite a few people, and $300 million sounds like a lot of money. But at the end of the day, what does it actually buy you? I mean, Pepsi and Coke spend over a billion every year pushing their products.

Believe me, if someone offered us a billion, we’d take it.

Related Tags: advertising, activism, Al Gore
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Man made global warming is a catastrophic myth. Catastrophic because man made global warming fanatics will prevent the building of desperatly needed oil refineries, mining of oil shale and coal to gas plants. They will raise prices on everything else as CO2 (an inert gas) is treated the same as nuclear waste. Trillions of dollars will be spent on purposeless and useless technology. Another wacky establishment idea like all the others that are ruining this country.

man-made global warming is a myth, i don't mean to offend any Americans in her, but that sounds to me like a real w. bush response. the evidence is all around us. action doesn't need to be drastic, there is no need to go to extremes, but common sense would go along way here. smoking holds no benefit for the world, if we ban it, it would go such a long way to helping the world, and i say this as a smoker, who would fully support that action. this could be applied to so many non-essential items in the world, i mean who needs 3 litre petrol cars or has to sit in a room with the heating on full, while wearing a t-shirt. yes a black market will rise to supply those who feel they need there luxuries, but these are steps in the right direction.
we may not be the generation to fix what some much of the harm that we have caused, but let us try to be the first to raise the white flag and lead those who will follow us into the right direction.
miss-education lead Germany to war against the world, it lead America into war against Iraq, and if we're not careful it will lead us into a world more miserable than any recession could cause.