If you’ve worked in an agency over the past few years, chances are you’ve been subjected to some kind of eco drive. Perhaps you’ve had your kettle impounded, or been forced to work in semi-darkness on winter afternoons. Or perhaps you’ve discovered, a few minutes before a crucial presentation, that some do-gooding hobbit has set your printer default to double-sided. And you may well have reflected, bad-temperedly, that these measures don’t make any sense. After all, if you’re really keen to save the world, the best thing you can do is to stop working in advertising, right now.
Advertising creates waste. That’s sort of, er, the point. It’s no coincidence that the industry as we know it really took off around the same time as mass production. Once manufacturers could turn out a new car every hour, waiting for customers’ existing cars to wear out simply wasn’t going to cut it. In the absence of a war, the only way for the factories to keep running at a profitable lick was for demand to increase in proportion to supply. The men and women of Madison Avenue did their jobs well. Consumers consumed. And consumed and consumed. They bought the cars. They ate the cheeseburgers. They turned themselves into indentured slaves using credit cards to buy trainers, made by indentured slaves on the other side of the world. The rainforests got made into flat-pack furniture and every dolphin in the ocean ended up with one of those plastic webs that holds six-packs of lager wrapped around its beak.
In short, advertising got us into a terrible mess. But can it get us out of it? Enter Thomas Kolster, author of Goodvertising: Creative Advertising That Cares. Kolster is an optimist, he believes that we, as makers of advertising, are uniquely well placed to change the world for the better. “We not only have the creative muscle to come up with solutions,” he says “but also the power to influence the mind and the behaviour of the future marketplace, as we have done with great success in the past.”
And it seems conditions are favourable. Consumers have started to demand that corporations consider not just their bottom line, but their impact on the world. Ethics and environmentalism have been added to the matrix of image, price and quality that traditionally made up a brand. It has even become possible for brands to compete on this new ethical plane. Kolster provides some heartening examples: “Coca-Cola launched their PlantBottle made from 30% renewable plant-based material. Just two years later, Pepsi introduced a bottle made from 100% renewable material. The new responsible competition follows the mantra: anything you can do, I can do greener.”
Companies need to convince consumers that they care. And it turns out that the best way to make it look like you care, is to actually care. Kolster suggests that this could bring about a perfect storm: brands competing against each other to do good, and then doing it, enlarging the market for, and the expectation of, more good behaviour. He calls this effect ‘The Wheel of Good’. So does that mean they won’t be needing us any more? Well, no because, for the time being anyway, they’ll need to publicise their good works using things like press, TV, and poster advertising. And that’s the main, and most useful thing, this book is – a collection of the world’s best ethically-minded ads.
But it’s a rather confusing collection. Kolster draws no distinction between good charity adverts (like the Cannes-winning Amnesty work by Walker, Zurich), adverts which emphasise an otherwise conventional product’s environmental credentials (like Wieden’s work for Honda), and ads which just sort of seem ‘good’ to him (like a South African campaign for Wimpy in which blind people were given hamburgers with braille messages spelt out in sesame seeds).
The book is divided into ten sections, coinciding with Kolster’s ten ‘guidelines’ for brands that want to put their “best foot forward”. “In order to stay relevant,” he says, “a brand should be transparent, connected, simple, collaborative, compassionate, creative, contagious, generous, insightful and positive.” Glad that’s settled then. But it left me wondering: did his guidelines predate his need to divide a large number of adverts into groups for a coffee table advertising book? And if not, in what sense can they be said to be his guidelines?
In fact, Kolster is a somewhat irritating presence throughout the book, peddling wild assertions and unsubstantiated factoids about ‘brain science’. Most annoying of all are the interview sections, in which his subjects’ responses are assimilated into his prose, rather than presented in edited Q&A format. And this means that, instead of hearing from Alex Bogusky or Hannah Jones of Nike we mainly hear from Thomas Kolster. This has the same effect as someone standing in front of a TV talking, when there’s something you really want to watch on the screen.
But never mind, the ads shine through. And perhaps the selection benefits from its eccentricity. A couple stood out for me. The Coke machine for Dia del Amigo in Argentina, which dispenses two bottles for the price of one but has a button panel located so high up that you need a foot-up from a friend to reach it; and the tray covers for McDonalds which illustrate with beautiful simplicity how your litter effects a pristine beach (the covers are lifesize shots of unspoilt nature).
You may find Kolster’s tone annoying, and you may even suspect him of highjacking a good cause for the furtherment of his own career. But that doesn’t mean that he has entirely the wrong idea. It might be somewhat naive to think that advertising that encourages people to act against their own comfort and interests will ever be as effective as advertising that appeals to their desires: it’s like the difference between opening a door with and against the wind. But if we want to stay alive we are going to have to change how we live. And while the chances of you, me and Sir Martin Sorrell giving it all up and going to live in the woods is very small, surely whatever effort, however tokenistic, is better than none at all. Maybe we can’t hope to save the world without being patronised first.
Gordon Comstock is an ad creative. Goodvertising is published by Thames & Hudson; £29.95. thamesandhudson.com