What we can learn from MadMen
At a downtown happy hour, a friend of a coworker asked, “So, what do you do?” He thought he was making simple small talk, but for Biodiversity Project staff, there is no simple answer to that question.
Biodiversity Project is an environmental communications nonprofit organization. Our mission is to protect and restore our natural resources, but we aren’t dedicated to one resource, animal or place. We help protect and restore land and water resources in North America by helping other environmental organizations communicate their issues to their audiences.
Put another way, we are the Mad Men of environmental causes.
Advertising executives sell products by understanding their audiences and appealing to their values. From Coke to Chrysler, companies appeal to feelings like our sense of nostalgia (Coca-Cola’s vintage Santa Claus) and national or regional pride (Chrysler’s new tagline is “Imported from Detroit”) to sell products. These values-laden campaigns do not focus on the products as much as they showcase the buyers. Their advertising tugs on our heartstrings and connects with our personal identities.
Consider the following:
A son comes home for Christmas after being away for a long time. It’s early, so his folks aren’t awake yet. He and the kid sister put on a pot of coffee. As soon as his parents smell the Folger’s coffee brewing, they know it’s him and Christmas can begin.
A new dad loses his iPhone. Again. Normally it’s not a big deal; he’s lost phones before. But this time the phone has every photo that he has ever taken of his new baby boy. This time it’s not just a phone that’s missing. It’s those photos, those memories. Thank goodness he stored those photos in the iCloud.
Life is short. Would we rather spend the precious time that we have left in boring meetings, on treadmills and in traffic? Or would we rather spend that time hiking dunes, building sand castles and splashing with our kids on the beautiful beaches of Pure Michigan?
Above all else, these successful (and memorable) ad campaigns connect to us as emotional, nostalgic, sentimental and concerned people—not just buyers. They appeal to the values that we already hold dear.
And that’s what Biodiversity Project does for environmental groups and causes. We use unique, values-based messages to encourage targeted groups to take actions or change behaviors.
Both public opinion research and decades of anecdotal examples show that we cannot teach, threaten or scare adults into adopting lasting behaviors that are better for the environment. Instead, we must show them how the desired behavior fits into the life they’ve imagined for themselves by appealing to their personal values.
While we should always conduct audience research for every new campaign, research has revealed some common values that Americans often hold that can be applied to environmental causes:
- Responsibility to care for future generations
- Responsibility to family
- Personal spirituality and sacredness of nature
- Personal fulfillment—activities and aesthetics
- Love of country, region or culture
- Personal liberty and fairness
By appealing to these values, audiences may feel a personal connection to the behavior change that you seek.
Biodiversity Project works on the simple premise that we can persuade audiences to take action to protect the environment by speaking to them with compelling, values-based language, just like advertising agencies do to sell us coffee, phones and vacations. It is great and inspiring work, even if it is hard to explain in one sentence at a happy hour.