Effective Climate Change Communication: Selling the Sizzle

Posted on November 30, 2011


Futerra Communications published a document entitled Sell the Sizzle: The New Climate Message (2010), available at http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/Sellthesizzle.pdf.  For myself, and for many who consider themselves environmentalists, activists, or concerned citizens, we struggle with communicating some of the most crucial elements of the big picture, particularly regarding climate change.  The concepts included in this post – as well as the article where the ideas are originally from – could really help to bridge this severe communication gap.  I urge you to try it!  Put these concepts into practice and prove me right or wrong.

 In this publication, a new method of “selling” climate change is introduced, and many of the ideas presented are closer to marketing than to science.  Many of the helpful points are summarized below, and can give those with the knowledge some tips and tools on how to effectively communicate climate change.

1.  “Sell the sizzle, not the sausage” 

This might sound odd, and perhaps not directly applicable to climate change, but the message applies.  Consider this: when selling a sausage, the attention is grabbed due to the smells and the sounds associated (the senses).  This is what marketing companies do for foods, is tap into the human senses, rather than pushing the product.  And “for years we have tried to sell climate change but a lot of people aren’t buying”.

Thus the article says that it is no longer the scientists problem (as the scientific evidence is unequivocal), but is now in the realm of the salespeople (that’s us!).

2.  “Climate change sounds like hell, so where is heaven?” 

This might sound extreme… but since climate change itself is the sausage, not the sizzle, we have to find an appropriate sizzle to sell it.  I think everyone can agree that it is much more pleasant to focus on positives than negatives, yet many environmentalists and messages in the mainstream media focus on the negative repercussions of climate change (rising sea levels, displaced people, extreme weather).  Let’s face it, that sounds like many of our versions of hell on earth.  So perhaps rather than focusing on the negative impacts of climate change, a heavenly vision of the future can become the sizzle!

The article proposes that we build a compelling vision of a low-carbon heaven.  Once you see the comparison between climate change and hell, it’s easy to see how strange current climate messages are.  First we are threatening an “Armageddon” and the next moment, asking people to recycle, carpool, and change their light bulbs.  We cannot assume that anyone would want to willingly believe this, buy into it, or change their ways of life because of it.

 3.  “When you’re faced with hell – you sell heaven.” 

So take some tips from the marketing experts of the world, and sell your sizzle!  Since many of us have similar visions of a common future, this is a good place to connect.  This is also a good opportunity to bring in the positive aspects of your green ideals.

For a future vision that sizzles, the article makes the following suggestions of points to touch upon:

How will we eat?

Farmers markets, fair trade, home gardens, eco-supermarkets?

Where will we live?

New ideas about how we will build our homes and what will go in them.

How will we travel? 

Think of exciting, more sustainable, new travel options.

Where will we work?

Inspire excitement and enthusiasm about the green economy.

4.  There is very little value in trying to sell nightmares to anymore. 

The article also states that it doesn’t want to use the strategy “be good or you’re going to hell” – translated to “we need to become more energy efficient or we’re going to climate change hell”.  This needs to stop, as this is missing the crucial part of the message, and is not effectively reaching many people.

There is such a thing as an “availability heuristic” within all of our brains, which enables us to believe the things that we imagine most vividly.  What this means can be seen as both good and bad; if we are capable of making our dreams come true with the help of the “availability heuristic”, we could make our nightmares come true as well.

“If we only carry the negative picture of the future in our minds, then the switch can subconsciously encourage us to fulfil it”.  Although created with good intentions, climate communications have been built on mental pictures of climate chaos.  According to the article, by highlighting all of the problems with our daily actions, these danger and threat messages could have unintentionally created a self-fulfilling prophecy of climate chaos.  We all assumed that picture would compel people to avoid it, not causing them to perpetuate it.  Thus, there is great value in a new vision of the future, with less on the doom and gloom, and more on the beauty of the planet, on a just and fair world, and on more sustainable societies.

The article continues to identify people who hold different opinions in society; from global activists to global deniers, and those who fall in between, offering tips on how to communicate.  Also, it provides some answers to potential big questions that could arise in this discussion.

I hope this post has encouraged you to have the climate conversation with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, providing you with some tools to do so more confidently and effectively.

– K –