Television is the king of the attention economy. Ninety-nine point nine percent of U.S. households owned a television in 2009, according to Nielsen. Anecdotally, I don't know a single person who doesn't own one. Even in my left-leaning college years, "not watching television" still meant watching a few "Cheers" episodes per week.
As discussed in my most recent Green: Print column, print sometimes gets a bad rap for being environmentally unsound. However, TV certainly is not blameless in this regard. During the lead-up to the World Cup in 2006 in Great Britain, one scientist predicted that two new nuclear power plants would be required to keep up with the demands on the energy grid because of increased sales of plasma televisions.
Unlike print and outdoor though, the consumer has all the control over the greenness of the medium. Want cleaner? Buy a different TV. Different styles of televisions have varying degrees of environmental footprints, from energy consumption to manufacturing process to material components. To encourage adoption and production of greener appliances and electronic devices, the U.S. devised the Energy Star rating system in the early 1990s. This tells consumers that a device meets a certain standard of ergonomics and energy efficiency. In the case of televisions, an Energy Star rating is granted if the energy consumption is about 30% less than the norm.
So, where does this leave "green" in terms of "TV"? Since the medium itself is government- and consumer-regulated, there's no obvious way that marketers/advertisers can have an impact on its greenness. However, in terms of leveraging the medium to gain instant and large-scale social impact, TV is the super heavyweight champion of all media. TV represents over 60% of all ad spending (28.5% for network, 17% for cable and 16.6% for local television). The grandeur of this economic scale on its own has been leveraged by a few leading advertisers in ways that truly are "so-crazy-it-just-might-work".
Last spring, Maxwell House coffee ran a series of television ads, which simply stated, "The average TV ad costs $245,000. This one cost $19,000. Tell us what to do with the difference."
Thousands of consumers engaged a microsite (brewsomegood.ca), where they voted for various causes, thereby directing Maxwell House's expenditure of the $200,000 difference. Twenty causes were given $10,000 each, including: The Toronto Green Community (a non-profit that institutes green programs for high-density residences); Hope's Home (a family-centered environment offering daycare and respite for medically fragile children.); and Dress Your Best (outfitting under-privileged people with clothing for employment.)
Along similar lines as Maxwell House but, literally, at Super Bowl scale is PepsiCo. Just last week Pepsi announced that it would not advertise its beverages in the Super Bowl this year. Instead, with the Pepsi Refresh project (refresheverything.com), it will earmark the $20 million advertising budget to programs promoting social good, like reading programs for youth.
One group that has leveraged the sheer scale and reach of television in perhaps the most unusual and innovative way is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA has a history of getting officially rejected by network approval committees by creating ads that don't fit the advertising guidelines. Shortly after the rejection, it follows up with a PR blitz, proclaiming that it has been singled out because of its messaging. The ensuing number of online video views is staggering, thus giving them more reach than any single Super Bowl buy-in (for a fraction of the cost, no less).
The irony here is obvious. By "not spending" on a medium as large as TV, innovative companies are gaining a larger slice of the coveted notoriety and credibility pie than their competitors. With Pepsi's announcement of its intention last week, this type of strategy has been catapulted from small budgets and fringe groups to mainstream brand validation.