Merchants Of Doubt

Usually, in this column, we try to shine a light on brands who are integrating sustainable themes into their marketing, perhaps even into their business. Wal-Mart, for example, with their directive to their vendors to reduce packaging by 5% a few years ago is an outstanding example of what happens when a giant corporation decides to flex its muscles for good. Unilever has set itself the lofty goal of doubling its business while reducing its environmental footprint.

Both companies have expanded their initial efforts to cover the entire product life cycle, with Wal-Mart’s sustainability index for itself and its suppliers, and Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which covers not just all Unilever brands in all markets, but also addresses the sourcing of raw materials and the way consumers use products—everything from putting an end to deforestation by Lipton tea farmers to reducing the amount of hot water a family uses to do the laundry with Surf detergent. According to Keith Weed, CMO of Unilever, the company now sources half of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable farms. These stories will, hopefully, inspire others to find their own ways to embrace sustainability. It can’t be easy to implement Triple Bottomline strategies in a world of quarterly earnings frenzy. 

Yes, typically these are the kinds of stories we cover. Sadly, not this time. Every story must have its villains as well as its heroes and, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the devils are sometimes more interesting than the angels. This column is dedicated to the Dark Side. But first, a pop quiz. Can you guess what this quote is about?

"Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

If you said “tobacco,” congratulations. You have correctly identified the infamous 1969 memo from a tobacco company executive that outlined their attempts to obfuscate, vitiate and denigrate the attempts to link tobacco with heart disease and cancer. 

But if you said “climate change denial,” you would be right as well. In a twist worthy of a movie, the PR masterminds behind that campaign are now working with powerful vested interests, including oil and gas companies and other large fossil fuel-dependent organizations to cast doubt on the phenomenon of global warming. Fortunately for all of us students of marketing, there is, in fact, a movie – “Merchants of Doubt” directed by Robert Kenner. 

If you haven’t seen the movie, you might think that it would be practically impossible to fly in the face of the collective view of the world’s leading scientists. You might wonder how these deniers would be able to explain away the images of Greenland melting, or flood waters rising in Bangladesh and the Maldives. You would probably dismiss their chances of success in a world of drastically frequent forest fires, unseasonal storms and general Cecil B. DeMille-level disaster. 

You would be wrong. Because as Johnnie Cochran demonstrated at the O.J. Simpson trial, doubt is a powerful tool, when coupled with the brain’s natural tendency to ignore the long-term. For anyone living in the Adam Smith world of perfectly rational human beings operating to maximize their chances of survival, the MoD playbook should serve as a wake-up call. People are unfailingly,  even suicidally irrational. 

So how do you fight the massed scientific wisdom of the world? You don’t. Instead, you side-step the science and shift the conversation to a different emotional trigger. Hey, presto — suddenly this is not about mutually assured destruction, its about politics. 

All you have to do is bundle climate change with a bevy of liberal and progressive priorities, and find natural foes. Tim Callahan, president of Americans for Prosperity — the tea party mega-group backed by billionaires David and Charles Koch — explained it to the filmmakers: It's not about science, it's about politics. Americans don't want more regulation, more taxes. Thus, the science takes a backseat to political ideology. Regulation is bad. Big government is bad. To address climate change means embracing both.

Voila! Subject changed, passions aroused and the lemmings march on.

The only silver lining in this story is that like those tobacco executives years ago, this could mean that even the Dark Side actually acknowledges the reality of climate change. 

The upshot is that the world’s scientists need our help. They aren’t marketers. They don’t know how to capture attention, change behavior or persuade hearts and minds. That’s our job and if we don’t do it, you know who will.

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