Behavior Change
A Vaccine For Global Warming

You may not immediately see the similarities between the recent measles outbreak in the U.S., and the ever-contentious hydra-headed problem of global warming. But on closer scrutiny, both come from what may seem like an insane refusal to accept facts and act in the best interests of everyone concerned. Of course, to those who militate against vaccinating their children and attack the idea of global warming as a human-induced phenomenon, their actions don’t seem insane at all.

It should be clear from these two examples that we are controlled by irrational forces that have successfully created the illusion that we are not controlled by irrational forces.

The problem is twofold: our beliefs blinker us to contradictory information and the blinkering takes our attention away from the original problem. One way to get around this? The vaccine method.

Let’s think about how a vaccine works. Broadly speaking, the patient receives a substance that imitates the characteristics of the disease, and tricks the body into responding to the threat. Having taken on and bested this weak threat, the body now has the memories it needs to combat the real disease if and when it attacks. It’s a stealth mode way of alerting and activating the body’s natural defenses.

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Now think of our attention as the equivalent of the immune system. It’s not an exact analogy, but go with me here. What’s the trick that can attract attention to an unpleasant reality and trigger a strong response that helps start a healing process? Ask Bill Nye. Yeah, the Science Guy.

Bill Nye’s recent “DeflateGate” video was a perfect example of stealth marketing. Having debunked Coach Bill Belichick’s atmospheric and imaginative explanations for the condition of the Patriots’ footballs, he went on to say that while that may have been questionable, global warming was real and caused by human beings. A classic study in hijacking attention to serve a greater cause. Taking a popular meme and infecting it with an important one. Watch it here. It’s brilliant.

John Oliver suggested a similar strategy: “native journalism,” his antidote to “native advertising.” If corporations are allowed to sneak ads into journalism, then maybe we can do the reverse, he argued, and sneak some actual news into commercials. As an example, take this Diet Coke ad, which has a surprising middle.

While it may seem depressing to think of our species listening to someone fiddle as the world goes up in flames around us, the idea of inserting a few lyrics into that fiddling session that exhort us to look up and around might just be the vaccine we seek.

Usually, there is very little joy to be found in a discussion of the human response to global warming. So when there is one, I can’t end without trumpeting it.

Seems like the country is actually listening to Bill Nye’s final words of advice on the video. He said that the best thing we could do about global warming was to elect politicians committed to acting on it. And a recent New York Times poll showed that two-thirds of the country supports government action to address climate change and are more likely to vote for candidates who campaign on that platform. Yes, it’s bipartisan. As so few things are these days. Proving, once again, that democracy is stronger than the politicians who purport to represent it.

The people have spoken. Stop fiddling.

This post first appeared on MediaPost on February 11, 2015.

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