Perception vs Reality: What the Environmental Movement could Learn from Rolling Stone

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Rolling Stone advertisement circa 1985

Canadian advertising exec Terry O'Reilly has a hit radio show, the Age of Persuasion, that looks at the history of advertising and explains how it works. He was the opening speaker at this weekend's Ontario Heritage Conference, which focused on changing perceptions. And while he was there to speak about the image of heritage, it could have just as easily have been about the environmental movement. O'Reilly said:

One of the most difficult tasks marketing can undertake is to change a perception. People treat perceptions like possessions, and don't give them up easily.
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Terry O'Reilly

O'Reilly tells the story of Rolling Stone Magazine. 25 years ago they were having trouble selling advertising; the buyers thought that the market for the magazine was aging stoned hippies, not worth chasing. But Minneapolis agency Fallon McElligott developed a campaign that ran for seven years, consistently showing that in fact Rolling Stone readers were professionals who owned houses and cars and were more into health food than hash brownies. It was one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. Each ad focused on a different audience, a different kind of advertiser. Over the course of the campaign, advertising pages increased 58%.

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It is not dissimilar from the approach that Graham Hill took when he was pitching TreeHugger seven years ago, showing images of people who do not quite look like stereotypical treehuggers. (Although I still get sniggers from some people when I say where I work)

O'Reilly notes that changing people's perceptions is not easy.

Getting people to change their mind on an issue takes patience and fortitude. Persuasion takes time. If you really understand the people you are trying to convince, there is a key leverage point to discover, and that takes research and intuition.

Certainly, when it comes to branding, the environmental movement has failed miserably. Seth Godin wrote a few years ago in The problem with "global warming"

The muted reaction to our impending disaster comes down to two things:

1. the name.

Global is good.
Warm is good.
Even greenhouses are good places.

How can "global warming" be bad?

I'm not being facetious. If the problem were called "Atmosphere cancer" or "Pollution death" the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

Seth's second point was the pace, a degree every few years makes lousy TV.

Because activists have been unable to tell their story with vivid images about immediate actions, it's just human nature to avoid the issue. Why give up something we enjoy now to make an infintesimal change in something that is going to happen far in the future?

Mainstream environmentalists tried to scare us into sustainability; Graham and TreeHugger tried to make it sexy. Terry O'Reilly tells us that changing perceptions takes patience and fortitude; I hope he is right, and I hope we have time.

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