Eco-anxiety is real.
It’s the deafening sound of the climate clock (‘by 2030 this, by 2040 that…’) that tightens the stomach more than when contemplating any other ‘world issue’.
Global warming won’t wait around like a procrastinating Bond villain whilst we calmly allow the passage of time to take us on our moral and technological journey. And as world leaders convened at COP26 last week to try and reach a deal to ‘save the world’, this decidedly 21st century form of dread would have reached an apex for many.
The good news is the psychological impact of living with an impending crisis hovering is starting to become an established part of the climate conversation.
Brands who acknowledge this and act accordingly with practical solutions will be well-placed to win hearts and minds, as well as play a positive role in the fight against this crisis.
Hence the launch of Vattenfall’s Engineerapy.
As I read the campaign blurb on their website, it looks like I perfectly fulfil their audience criteria, forming part of the 69% of people they say are ‘quite’ or ‘a great deal’ worried about climate change.
The Swedish energy company are giving eco-anxious consumers the opportunity to book a 20-minute video call with a climate expert, who will allay their fears by answering questions about the progress being made in wider society and by Vattenfall. I’d give a lot more than 20 minutes of my time to stop that thought spiral. There’s also a link to “super-soothing-climate-progress-engineering-tracks” on Spotify.
At first glance, this seems like a smart response to their consumer insight. It’s a refreshingly direct piece of creative.
And yet, the campaign makes me a little uneasy.
Vattenfall claims that 79% of reporting on climate change in the Swedish and international press is negative (no sh*t).
The theory goes that regular exposure to negative coverage leads to apathy, and this lack of confidence can get in the way of positive consumer behaviour on environmental issues: “When apocalyptic reporting on the climate dominates, people become paralysed”, states climate psychologist Dr. Knut Ivar Karevold on the campaign site.
But what is the positive behaviour that Vattenfall is attempting to protect here?
Wouldn’t constructive consumer action in this sector see individuals choose a provider whose energy mix is renewable, thus forcing dirtier competitors to follow suit?
The thing is, for a company whose customers won’t be fossil free until 2045, an energy user who doesn’t have that faith in consumer action is actually quite useful.
The campaign site links to relatively detailed yet accessible pages on Vattenfall’s climate targets, explaining how they align with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement. But they read much the same as European competitors like E.ON or RWE. Yes, they are meeting UN goals, but the Paris promise to keep warming to “well below 2°C” was the lowest common denominator between 195 countries.
Wealthy energy companies have a responsibility and the means to move faster (Vattenfall is state-owned but has annual revenues of £13.5bn). With this in mind, Engineerapy looks more like an attempt to maintain the status quo of their original insight, not fix it. Dr. Knut’s consumer paralysis is achieved through reassurance, instead of apathy. Stick with us, we’ve got it under control.
This kind of campaigning is typical of an old industry that has continually taught itself new tricks.
From the invention of the consumer carbon footprint, to beautiful documentaries about speculative green technologies, to therapy for eco-anxiety, the ‘purpose’ work our industry has done for fossil fuel firms has been astonishingly creative, smart and effective.
Indulging in the craft of creative communications in spite of its outcomes is a tendency we’ve all observed in our professional selves. But pressure is growing on the PR industry to realise the immense power it wields to affect consumer behaviour, and protect large companies like Vattenfall from adapting at the required pace.
It’s time we stopped patting ourselves on our creative backs when we deliver award-winning distraction.
Try explaining the beauty of a well-executed PR strategy to the citizens of Tuvalu, whose foreign minister Simon Kofe delivered a speech to COP delegates knee-deep in seawater to highlight the threat of rising sea levels. They already know how to do it, and for the right reasons.
For too many people around the world, there’s no time to wallow in the existential dread of humanity’s plight.
That plight has already arrived.
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