In the 1980s and early 1990s, the plastics industry was facing new challenges. Very little had actually changed. Plastics were still being produced in much the same way as they always had been. Plastic bags still ended up strewn about where they shouldn’t have been, plastic medical devices still saved people’s lives and everything in between. It was business as usual- only it wasn’t. The environmentalists had arrived, and they were targeting the plastics industry.
Public opinion was shifting fast and the plastics industry was on the defensive. The story changed in 1993, with the “Plastic Makes It Possible” campaign. The campaign would go on to win the 1997 David Ogilvy Gold Medallion Award from the Advertising Research Foundation. Wirthlin Worldwide estimates that the campaigns associated with radio, television and print ads improved consumer attitudes towards plastics from 52 percent to 64 percent approval. Today, the plastics industry is still going strong.
The alternative energy industry has the opposite problem. Plastics were an efficient and profitable business, attacked by environmentalists. In contrast, much of the alternative energy industry has been promoted by environmental interest. Their natural profit margins are less certain, and marketplace purists have been gaining steam as they question the validity of government support for these industries.
There are a number of facts – historical and otherwise – that would theoretically help the alternative energy industries to maintain public support. Coal and other traditional energy sources were supported by government subsidies for many years, and are still the recipients of corporate welfare in some ways. Alternative energy sources have also made steady progress in becoming more economically viable. Many may, in fact, swim all on their own. Despite these compelling facts, these aren’t the stories the public needs to hear.
The plastics campaign wasn’t about money, efficiency or subsidies. It was about something much more fundamental than that: human life. The “Plastics Makes It Possible” campaign highlighted how plastics could help people, bring families together and, ultimately, save lives. It isn’t a numbers game; it is a game of emotions. Where are these stories as they relate to alternative energy?
Certainly, green and clean fuel and energy can muster emotionally driven, effective stories about people as easily as the plastics industry, but few are telling these stories. Even fewer are telling them well. The problem is that alternative energy industry giants think that they have won the publicity game. They’re wrong.
Although alternative energy has already won the hearts and minds of many modern-day consumers, a number of Americans remain skeptical. They speculate that government subsidies are unfairly distorting markets. They worry that this support is propping up inefficient energy sources at the expense of less attractive, but more realistic, alternatives. They see alternative energy companies as little better than their corporate counterparts. The public opinion battle is far from over, and the U.S. government has noticed. Recently, significant funding has been cut in an effort to see whether the industries will sink or swim.
If alternative energy companies want their subsidies and, more importantly, the support of the general public support to continue, they need to deliver more effective communications materials. What might these campaigns look like? They need to be emotionally compelling, story-driven and highlight real struggles from real people.
Current strategies are missing the mark. This green energy campaign video, for example, does little more than list useful facts. It doesn’t even utilize inspirational music. This beautifully composed animation video highlights a dream for a solar future and identifies stakeholders, but never hits upon the human cost of a world that doesn’t dream of a solar future. The solar energy road trip campaign shows people, but it doesn’t show struggle. It presents people committed to solar energy, but never explains why. “It’s out there . . . why not use it?” is not the message of a revolution. It won’t capture hearts and minds. It won’t garner the kind of support needed to power a clean energy movement.
The alternative energy movement needs better campaigns. It needs more compelling stories of people whose lives can and will be irrevocably changed by a true commitment to alternative energies. These stories are out there. They just need to be told. When and if the alternative energy industries produce emotionally compelling, story-driven campaigns of their own, then, like plastic, they may become a staple of the American landscape.
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