What the Super Bowl has to say about sustainability

This Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday, and the rematch between the Patriots and the Giants could have one of the largest single audiences in television history. In 2011, Super Bowl XLV drew in excess of 111 million viewers, and this year’s event seems on track to surpass it. The game is unique in that a sizeable portion of its audience tunes in not for the main event — the football — but for the interruptions — the commercials. The Super Bowl is typically considered, well, the Super Bowl of ad air time, and understandably so: with the largest TV audience in the world and a stranglehold on the American household in that time slot, advertising is both highly effective and prohibitively expensive.

This year, watch those commercials carefully. You’re likely to notice something interesting: environmental themes are everywhere. From ads for environmentally-friendly trash bags to organically-farmed Mexican food (both on multiple lists of Ads of the Year, incidentally), environmental messages are all around us lately. While for many this may smack of greenwashing, there are reasons to be grateful, even excited about this trend. The fact that advertising — often the crassest, most banal form of media — has wholeheartedly embraced the perceived benefits of environmentalism demonstrates that a kind of cultural shift has occurred. No longer are discussions of climate change or environmental sustainability confined to board rooms, States of the Union or drab negotiations in Durban. Rather, the conversation is increasingly front and center, on your TV and in your living room.

Go ahead, look for an ad that has an anti-environment message — you won’t find one. And those that toe the line (looking at you, Audi) do so incidentally. Advertisements are, at their heart, an attempt at building a narrative that, in 30 seconds or less, encourages viewers to do something. Typically this means buying a product or service. Because of this, advertisers are not typically cause-driven — they are hard-headed businessmen who build ads to sell things. As such, the ads are specifically designed to hit a viewer’s particular buttons. Ads are never purely artistic; the images and narratives are carefully chosen and crafted because they will sell.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that advertisers are making environmentally-focused ads because they see the potential value. According to 2010 research by Mintel, 35% of American consumers are willing to pay a premium for environmentally-friendly products. Additionally, the green consumer products market outperformed the market as a whole, growing six percent in 2008 and managing flat growth in a rough 2009. This is the math that advertisers have noticed: if people are willing to pay more for organic or sustainable products, then they are probably more likely to buy products with green messages. On the flip side, they are probably less likely to spend money on products that are blatantly environmentally harmful.

This explains the preponderance of green ads and the dearth of counter-narratives. Advertisers have assessed the market and noted that consumers are more likely to fork over the cash if they feel that their purchases are doing some good. Given advertising’s unique place in the cultural pantheon, this should be seen as an encouraging development. Advertisers are in the unenviable position of simultaneously playing to the status quo (in the form of consumption patterns, cultural references and social norms) and attempting to shape individual behavior in a profitable manner. This leads to a “chicken or the egg” problem — advertisers are bound by the current culture even as they attempt to shape it themselves. Not for nothing has Ogilvy & Mather branded its entry-level program the “Craftsmen of Culture.”

This creates unique problems for advertisers. For example, take the efforts to market and sell the Nissan Leaf. Advertisers were faced with a new product that had strengths (environmental cachet and novelty) as well as weaknesses (a higher price and limited range relative to traditional cars). The solution was to focus on the environmental benefits while minimizing the concerns about fuel and range. The resulting narrative frames the Leaf less as a brand new product than as a new form of a familiar product. The resulting ad is both powerful and compelling. The narrative may help explain how the Leaf outsold the comparable Chevy Volt in 2011.

While advertisers occupy the critical intersection of customer expectations and future aspirations, their increased focus on the environmental impact of products could produce a virtuous cycle. Advertisers seek to tap the latent demand for eco-friendly products in order to encourage consumers to buy more eco-friendly products. In doing so, they entrench the idea that environmental sustainability is here to stay, encouraging further consumption shifts and an increasing focus on the environmental aspects of a given product.

This also demonstrates a larger societal shift. While media coverage of climate change may be declining, public interest in sustainability is clearly on the rise (PDF). This is a good thing. For the last several years, the public has seen attempts to combat climate change fail in conference rooms in Durban and cabinet rooms in Washington, London and Beijing. These failures, combined with the general ineffectiveness of the UN COP process, have created the impression that there is not much that the average person can do to help. Advertising counters this by explicitly saying what you can or should do. Focusing on the environmental aspects of a given product or service effectively tells consumers that the decision is in their hands, regardless of the intractability of the US Congress or the glacial progress of COP17. The more the conversation moves from stuffy ministerial meetings (not exciting) to consumers’ living rooms (empowering), the better off we will be. While ads should clearly be taken with a grain of salt, we should welcome their underlying message — that we, as individuals and consumers, can do our parts to help preserve the environment and create a better world — with open arms.

So watch those ads carefully this Sunday. Companies typically unveil their biggest, shiniest, attention-grabbiest ads during the Super Bowl. Past ads have been  funny,  poignant and even, on occasion, uplifting. What’s the message going to be this year?