Article: Creating a spectacle
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Saving the planet, one recycled aluminium can at a time. It sounds as inviting as Sisyphus from the Greek myth who was condemned for eternity to push a boulder uphill and watch it roll back down again. The easy part for NGOs, governments and public educators is raising awareness around energy conservation. The hard part is firstly to persuade people that the problem isn’t insurmountable, and secondly to make people believe individual actions can make a difference when faced with the scale of the problem.
One campaign that has successfully grabbed people’s attention across the world is Earth Hour, a project inaugurated in Sydney back in 2007. The result of a partnership between World Wildlife Fund Australia, Leo Burnett and Fairfax Media, in its first year two million people turned their lights out in Sydney. Now it’s a worldwide event with multiple collaborators. Claire Kesby-Smith, Business Director at Leo Burnett Sydney explains that this networked collaboration is enabled because it’s an “open source” project – people download materials and create their own local Earth Hour project. The “open source” model is very much of the moment and a useful tool for charities and organizations without a huge budget.
“It’s not that it’s big, that it’s truly global. It’s that it has a sense of scale”
What makes Earth Hour wholly interesting as a case study is that while the campaign makes full use of social media, its real impact comes from something quite traditional. Firstly it’s about spectacle. It’s an inverse fireworks display that creates extraordinary images out of darkness. It’s an image of nothing, a kind of real-life negative space. Kesby-Smith says it’s “a symbolic event” and it is one of those events whose image of darkness is a resounding and hypnotic statement. Secondly it’s about scale. It’s not that it’s big, that it’s truly global. It’s that it has a sense of scale. It would work equally, just as well if the lights went out on your street (there are other campaigns noted below that work at a neighbourhood level).
Thirdly it works because it is iconic; lights off in Las Vegas, the Petronas Twin Towers, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Forbidden City. As Kesby-Smith says it’s not about the physical act of turning the lights out, it is an image to inspire reflection and action.
The Curve: What was the origin of the idea?
Claire Kesby-Smith: It was just how we could get people to support environmentally sustainable action long term and what could we do that was collective and iconic. It started as an idea that would be great if we could get a few thousand people to turn their lights off, and that year we got accompanied by Fairfax Media so between the three of us we are actually part owners in the idea and remain close to it. We got 2.2 million people to turn their lights off in the first Earth Hour in March 2007.
How long did it take, six months, a year?
CKS: A couple of months. The philosophy here as an agency is to take a brief or a challenge and then not limit it to what can we do as a print or TV ad but actually what would change the behaviour. So this is probably the most beautiful example of what we as an agency have the privilege of working on.
“People take the time to think of their impact on the environment and that causes behaviour change”
Changing behaviour is a big ask…
CKS: Absolutely. People have the desire to act sustainably but it’s riddled with problems. You do it by yourself, you think it’s difficult, you think I can’t change the world, I’m just one person so you give up on it really quickly. But the beauty of Earth Hour is that it flips those things on its head – it’s symbolic, iconic, collective – something you can be proud of that you can see the impact of and it’s so simple. You can do it for an hour once a year and then people take the time to think of their impact on the environment and that causes behaviour changes. It’s beautifully simple but a lot of thinking went into it.
It was originally going to be called the Big Flick but you changed that. How did your thinking evolve?
CKS: It started as a bit of a brainstorm with core people in the room, Andy Ridley who is head of Earth Hour and Lawrence and Todd from Leo Burnett were brainstorming ways to change behaviour, thinking about how to get everyone in Sydney to do just one thing. That was why the Big Flick was a working title which was exactly what we were asking people and companies to do. To have businesses such as McDonalds and Coke, with their big neon signs to turn them off – that sends a massive message to people.
But instead of it being the Big Flick, it’s to be more focused on what people are actually doing, to encourage people to take the time and reflect. It’s not just about potentially decreasing energy, and we get a lot of flak from press about how much energy did we save by turning the lights off. It’s about taking the time collectively to think about our impact on the planet then to make plans for action over the next year.
There are three things you highlight in the work: the necessity for collective action; making it fun; and the iconic nature of it.
CKS: With social and environmental issues, when people identify a problem that needs to be solved individually, the problem feels too large for them to have any impact. So this sense of community that you can identify with and visually see in terms of the collective result is very empowering.
Images are clearly important in the campaign. There’s a connection between image and imagination, being able to imagine a different future and acting on that.
CKS: It convinces people that collectively, with small changes they can make a difference. It was globally successful and so simple.
Was the initial number of people involved a surprise?
CKS: Getting 2.2 million people to commit to doing something and stick with it! There are 4 million people in this city, so that was massive. The next year for Australia it was around 58% of the whole country, that was amazing to see it grow in one year, and last year it was 128 countries around the world. This year it was 135 countries – it’s epic.
How have the communications developed over time? And what is the place of social media now?
CKS: Social media plays a massive role now more than ever with millions of people online and the conversations that they have, but originally a lot of it was a bit more traditional. It was about getting PR and lots of news programmes covering it. We had celebrity ambassadors getting behind it such as Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett in the first year, that’s how we managed to get a lot of people to buy into the idea. But moving forward, Earth Hour only exists because it is an open source model where anybody can take the branding and run with it in any community up to any scale.
WWF are not for profit and they don’t have the manpower globally to run something like this. They do have local ambassadors who try to manage the effort as best they can and some countries have quite big teams dedicated to it. But even in Australia the team is only about 16 including agency partners and publisher partners helping out – it’s a massive effort for only a few people. Like I say it is open source and relies on the community. People want to get involved, people who are passionate about it can use the branding if they want to and create their own advertising, posters anything that they want to do to drum up support in their local community.
“It’s about people taking collective iconic and symbolic action to support environmentally sustainable action”
You still do conventional media?
CKS: Fairfax is one of our media partners but there is also another media agency here called Starcom and they do their absolute best to get free media for us wherever they can – street ads, radio and tv ads, banner ads, print ads. It’s a big campaign and it’s a massive effort behind it but we do rely on free space and people donating their time.
What is the timescale for driving awareness of the campaign?
CKS: It’s always the last Saturday in March. The campaign towards Earth Hour itself starts to kick off in January and builds in terms of volume of voice in the media. Around March people get really interested in the few weeks leading up to it. But this year, one of the global campaigns that we’ve used is called Beyond The Hour so it’s using the platform of Earth Hour for people to take action in their day to day lives.
Part of the extension of this would be for example people cycling to work, or taking public transport, making changes to their lives. It’s not just about energy-saving in a restricted sense? What is the timescale for driving awareness of the campaign?
CKS: Definitely. Earth Hour isn’t about saving energy, switching off for an hour. It’s about people taking collective iconic and symbolic action to support environmentally sustainable action and it is intended that people spend that hour thinking about what it all means, ultimately shifting behaviour.
You used designer Shepard Fairey to help out on the Vote Earth campaign?
CKS: Yes in 2009 (view campaign poster online). It’s obviously another way to say, by flicking off your light you are taking a stance that will be recognised for change, like you would if you were voting for a politician.
Because it requires collective action it is in a sense a political issue?
CKS: People take it just as seriously as they do political action which is why this visual was appropriate for this campaign. But its not there to be leveraged for a political point of view from country to country, it belongs to the community.
CKS: First and foremost it’s going to be about maintaining participation in the hour itself and ensuring that we can maintain people’s passion for turning the lights out. Without that standard platform, we don’t have anything else to build from. The Beyond the Hour campaign, and encouraging people to take sustainable thought action and behaviour into their day-to-day life, will definitely continue and live prominently in a social media space.
The other thing is focusing in on the grassroots side of it and recognising people in communities who have done a great job in acting sustainably and inspiring others. In Australia this year we had the Earth Hour awards where people voted on inspirational community members so that grassroots aspect is important as well.
People and companies have made pledges to make change. On the Beyond The Hour platform we are asking people to make commitments to how they were going to change behaviours moving forward and companies have gotten involved in impressive ways.
Earth Hour is an event that grew from a project encouraging people to turn their lights out, to a worldwide phenomenon in which major public symbols are shrouded in darkness. Last year people in 135 countries took part after help from celebrities to raise awareness and extensive promotion through social media. It is not about saving energy by turning off lights during that one hour, it is about fostering a more general behavioural change.
A large scale visual spectacle can help consumers focus on an issue. Using familiar symbols and icons in communications help portray the scale of the problem. Giving people an achievable task or goal in a communication gives them ownership.