At least we had an asteroid

Talking dinosaurs, half-naked Finns, radical ideas and paradigm shifts – Helen Gilchrist joined Contagious' Planet Matters event for insights and inspiration on how the advertising and marketing industry can, is, and should be responding to the biggest challenge of our time. Read on for 5 thinking points to give your own campaigns head-turning, planet-saving impact that can boost brand affinity at the same time.

By: Helen Gilchrist,   6 minutes

Planet Matters | Brands Against Calamity

The cinema lights dim, the scene starts rolling: A United Nations meeting, the ground trembles, a dinosaur (T-Rex? Ceratosaur?) roars in, stomps over to the lectern, adjusts the mic and clears its throat:

“Let me tell you, being extinct is BAD. You’re driving yourselves extinct – and even subsidising it. At least we had an asteroid! Stop making excuses and start making changes.” (Or something along those lines – I couldn’t scribble it down quick enough in the dark.)

It’s a compelling start to Contagious’ Planet Matters event, which has gathered several hundred key players in the advertising and marketing industry at the Vue Cinema in London’s Leicester Square, to explore the idea of ‘Brands Against Calamity’.


Fix problems. Don't be boring. (Text shown on a slide show)

It’s on us

The fact that the ad industry has been responsible for fuelling decades of mass consumption – wrecking the planet, exploiting workers and creating an endless desire for more – is not lost on anyone.

There’s a real sense of an industry searching its soul (it has one?!), accepting responsibility, and galvanising itself to fix it. With 60% of greenhouse gas emissions directly related to purchase decisions in the home, there’s a lot of fixing to be done.

“You realise, by encouraging people to consume more, the better you do your job, the more damage you do. You’re paying the mortgage with your kids’ futures.”

As Lisa Merrick-Lawless, co-founder of Purpose Disruptors (a non-profit organisation committed to reshaping the industry to tackle climate change) puts it, “You realise, by encouraging people to consume more, the better you do your job, the more damage you do. You’re paying the mortgage with your kids’ futures.”


Image of 'Doomism' shown with cartoon character looking seldom. Shown on the big screen from photographers view in cinema seat.


She shares a Wendell Berry quote (the American poet and naturalist puts his finger on it every time, IMO) that propelled her to make big changes in her own life – leaving a highly paid senior ad agency role to set up Purpose Disruptors:

“Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose; we can go on as before, recognising our dishonesty and living with it the best we can… Or we can begin the effort to change the way we live and think.”

Instead of going off to work for an environmental charity or wildlife organisation, Lisa resolved to stay in the industry and bring everyone on the journey to system change. With Purpose Disruptors, she’s now working hard to create a “paradigm shift” by helping agencies transition to “only creating work aligned with a 1.5 degree world”.

“This is no time for incremental ideas. Everyone in a leadership position needs to be asking, is this idea radical enough?”

“This isn’t about more pro bono jobs, or the side hustle,” she says. “It’s about bringing it into your everyday.” Instead of waiting for legislation and governments to lead the way, we can all start now; we all know the changes that are needed. As the “architects of desire”, we can shift the narrative; channelling our creativity, imagination and powers of persuasion in the right ways to help change meaning, behaviour, society and culture and be a big part of the solution, she insists – so that “less does not feel like a loss”.

“This is no time for incremental ideas,” Saasha Celestial-One, co-founder and COO of free sharing app Olio tells us later. “Everyone in a leadership position needs to be asking, is this idea radical enough?”

To help fuel the radical ideas we all need, here are 5 thinking points plucked from the Planet Matters talks:

1. Choose words wisely – to inspire behaviour and system change

First off, we need to stop thinking about people as ‘consumers’. Consumption for consumption’s sake is the problem, but the world advertisers have sold people for decades doesn’t reflect that. “We need to shift from being a service industry to working in the service of life,” argues Merrick-Lawless.

Another challenge is the word ‘waste’. “We need a new word!” says Celestial-One. “You hear ‘waste’ and it’s not exciting. But it could be a perfectly good bicycle for your kid that someone else has grown out of, that you get for free. That’s not ‘waste’.” Making reuse desirable and exciting is a big part of culture and behaviour change.

Let’s not waste our wonderful world from Olio

2. Fix problems – and be the brand that everyone associates fixing that problem with

Brands have a real opportunity to use their influence and resources to make a positive difference – while also increasing their sales and brand loyalty, says Contagious editor, Chloe Markowicz.

Talking about the idea of “enlightened self-interest”, she shares US beer brand Michelob’s inspiring work with grain farmers. Only 1% of farming in the US is organic, partly because it takes at least three years to transition, and is perceived by some as a considerable and risky investment.

Michelob has invested considerably in helping farmers in its supply chain move to organic systems, including creating their own financial incentives and minimum order contracts so farmers have a guaranteed market and price for growing grain in a way that improves soil health and reduces environmental degradation. As well as doing the right thing, it also happens to have boosted sales massively – with 25% expected growth by 2023.

6 for 6-Pack and Contract for Change from Michelob

3. Change the record – and have some fun

We’re all painfully aware of ocean plastic pollution – but recurring images of sealife choking on plastic can fuel ‘cognitive immunity’ and apathy, instead of driving the important action they’re trying to galvanize. “Year after year of distressed turtles are just not cutting it,” says Markowicz. (We also wrote about the importance of hope after Finisterre’s Sea 7 event last year, if you missed it.)

Beer brand Corona took a fresh approach, with its Plastic Fishing Tournament. Hosting an event in Mexico where fishermen raced to collect ocean plastic, Corona promised to pay the same price per kilo of ‘fished’ plastic as they’d normally get for their fish. 2.9 tonnes of plastic were caught in four hours, but the event has also kicked off a longer term global initiative where fishermen in China, Brazil, Israel, Colombia and South Africa are also paid for pulling plastic.

4. Be brave – and inspire other brands to try harder

A supermarket might not be the first thing to spring to mind when thinking of brave brands fighting unjust food production systems. But French supermarket chain Carrefour did just that – even breaking the law to fight for an important environmental cause.

Driven by patents and profits, the agrochemical industry in Europe – and, sadly, many places worldwide – has sanctioned an official catalogue of authorised species that dictates which seeds are eligible for sale and cultivation. Most of these are hybrid seed varieties, developed in laboratories, bred to be resistant to pesticides (produced and sold by said agrochemical industry), so they can be sprayed freely.

Only 3% of fruit and vegetables produced fall into this category – the remaining 97% are considered illegal, with farmers liable to hefty fines if they grow them.

Brazenly defying the law in a bid to change it, Carrefour created The Black Supermarket (‘Marche Interdit’), putting ‘illegal’ fruit and veg on its shelves to support farmers, biodiversity, public health and the environment.

Supermarket from Sophie Larivière.

Eventually leading to the creation of a new EU law, it also reinforced Carrefour as a brand willing to risk huge fines – and its own profitability – to fight unjust laws and defend what’s right for people and planet.

5. Don’t be boring – create something different, that deserves to be noticed

“The truth doesn’t spread because it’s boring,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates has said. And while climate change has to be THE most pressing challenge facing humanity, a recent study found that  46% of people in the UK found it to be “boring”, “quite boring” or “not very interesting”.

Samira Brophy, senior director at IPSOS Creative Intelligence talks about the “sea of sameness” in sustainability messaging (which links back to that poor choking turtle everyone’s ignoring).

In contrast, Salla in the Arctic Circle – the coldest town in Finland, with a population of around 3,500 – came up with a very different way of waking the world up to the threat of climate change… By bidding for the 2032 Olympic Summer Games, going head to head with cities like Madrid, Jakarta, Istanbul and Doha. Its tagline? ‘Warm place, coming soon.’

Salla 2032 – House of Lapland from Africa

Instead of ‘Save Salla’ – the word ‘save’ is another that too many people have become desensitised to – it used theatrics, mystery and showmanship to highlight the consequences of climate inaction. “Salla 2032 hoodwinked the world into thinking it was a real Olympic bid,” notes Contagious staff writer, Sunil Bajaj, “when it was actually a bid to save Salla – and save the planet.”


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