How Advertising Gave Us the Carbon Footprint

How Advertising Gave Us the Carbon Footprint

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. You know what happiness is? Happiness is [the] smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing, it's okay. You are okay."

Yes, this is a Don Draper quote from the 2007 hit series “Mad Men” on AMC.

Are we mad about it? No. Why? Because, even though a fictional character, the man is right. Time and time again, corporations have been able to numb the masses with good advertising and a catchy tagline.

In a poignant commercial from 1971, someone tosses a bag of trash from a moving car ‒ right at the feet of a (stereotypical) Native American man. The man slowly faces the camera, a single tear running down his cheek, before we’re met with the catchline “People start pollution. People can stop it.” This public service announcement was created by the non-profit group Keep America Beautiful, which was funded by the same companies that create the plastic waste that end up littering our lands.

According to a Keep America Beautiful representative, they believed litter was a behavioral problem. “It is not the product’s fault that it is misplaced in the environment ‒ it is the carelessness of the user of that product.” Thus, the onus was placed on the everyday American consumer.

Fast forward three decades later to British Petroleum (BP), the second largest non-state owned oil company in the world at the time, winning awards for their latest public relations campaign called “Beyond Petroleum.” This campaign made a similar statement, blaming the ever-increasing carbon pollution on the American public rather than the multi-billion dollar oil companies that profit off of the carbonaceous fuels they drill from the earth.

In fact, BP is credited for popularizing the term ‘carbon footprint’ during this campaign. In a commercial that aired in 2003, passersby on the street were asked, “What size is your carbon footprint?” Nobody knew the answer. But BP had a solution for us! In the same commercial, they suggest that  “we all can do more to emit less,” and unveiled a carbon footprint calculator to help us lower our carbon footprints. Sound familiar?

Now, let's circle back to the wise words of Don Draper.

Is this good advertising?

Unfortunately, this is very good advertising.

Both commercials present the viewer with a problem and a solution. There's plastic pollution littering the roadways and clogging up our waterways? Don't fear, just pick it up! Humans are producing an unnatural amount of carbon emissions and polluting the air? Don't fear, just use our carbon footprint calculator to see how you can lower your emissions! These advertisements are telling us that ‒ as long as we follow their direction ‒ we will be okay.

But remember, that was decades ago. It’s 2022 now, and we know better! We’re familiar with greenwashing tactics, and understand that our private actions don’t affect the same amount of change as collective action can. We're not falling for those old tricks anymore! Right?

Individual and collective action don’t have to be pitted against each other! The main difference between then and now is that we have control over the narrative. Even though the term ‘carbon footprint’ was made popular by a shady public relations campaign promoting a giant oil company… it’s still a good tool to have at our disposal.

So continue to turn off the lights when you leave a room, but also petition your local government for renewable energy while you’re at it!

Find this article in the March 2022 issue of Green Living Magazine by clicking here!