5 ways to step up to Extinction Rebellion’s challenge to the advertising industry

Last week, Extinction Rebellion laid down the gauntlet to the advertising industry, letting us know we have not been ‘forgotten’ as a target of their protest. Like all of XR’s comms they are both serious and playfully approachable at the same time; ‘declare a climate emergency and act accordingly’ they demand, while turning our own lines against us saying, ‘Just do it. Be all that you can be. Impossible is Nothing’.

This new protest movement has burst into the public realm in the last few months and is having remarkable success at connecting with the general public with 63% agreeing that we are in a climate emergency. They captured the mood of a country fed up with Brexit eclipsing a wide range of issues that are afflicting our nation’s wellbeing and prosperity.

XR has the potential to create real, lasting change and to be an inflection point where people truly wake up to our complete dependence on the natural world. But why are they targeting the advertising industry? Because they know that we have the power, influence and creativity to change culture, influence desire and inspire action.


What can we do?

Extinction Rebellion may well have issued its call to the C-suite of the advertising industry but our world is made up of thousands of people across dozens of disciplines. Most of us care about our collective future and want tomorrow to be better than today. What then can we do, on a practical level, to step up to XR’s call to action? Well, here’s five principles every creative, planner and account manager can live by to be part of the solution.



1) Build your blacklist

Don’t squander your genius on those who don’t deserve it

There are already huge numbers of people in our industry who simply will not work on tobacco accounts. Tobacco kills people. Smoking is highly addictive, destroys bodies, saps energy, pollutes our air and litters our streets – and that’s coming from an ex-smoker. We don’t work with tobacco companies because they make our world a worse place to be. Fossil fuels are killing people. They are polluting our air, our land, rivers and oceans and driving climate change that could destroy our society. Why would we help oil companies grow? Why should we use our talents to help them win customers? 70% of the carbon emissions created by humans since the industrial revolution have come from just 100 companies. It’s time to start drawing a hard line under clients we simply won’t work for. Open a spreadsheet now and copy the companies from the list in this article, you have just created your blacklist. Now, every time you read a credible report about a company driving climate change or wildlife extinction, add them to the list. As more of us do this, it will be common place for our decision makers to say things like, “I don’t think we should pitch for that client, most of our agency have them on their blacklist”. Don’t’ squander your genius on those who don’t deserve it, Start Your Blacklist.



2) Do the hard thing.

When the sustainable option is harder to sell, there’s new ground to be broken.

The world is full of disposable, polluting, high carbon junk that is directly driving climate change and species loss because people have been led to believe they want it. Why? Partly because making something better often requires a bit of extra effort, extra resource or extra attention, and too many brands are all about maximising those shareholder returns. And partly because sustainable options can be more expensive, require some behaviour change or ask their customers to think about an issue or product in a new way, making them harder to market. And that’s where you come in. The better alternative needs your talent to find new ways of connecting, new ways of storytelling and new ways of positioning benefits. Yes, it might be difficult, but this is where the gold is. This is where your skills may have to level up, where you’re insights will challenge what’s always been assumed and your creative could redefine what it means to have a great idea. Challenges make us grow. Do the hard thing.



3) Own your message.

Communicate messages you would be happy for your loved ones to take seriously.

We have an intimate relationship with culture. Our industry shapes it and is shaped by it. Just like the stereotypes we amplify, the attitudes and ideas that we place at the heart of our messages resonate in people’s minds and shape their aspirations. If we want to paint a picture of success, what does that look like? Private jets and big TVs or being able to spend time with people we love and earning the respect of our communities? Messages that promote collective action, belonging, respect for and connection with the natural world can have an outsized impact on moving culture towards sustainability. There is the simple test we can put on all our work; we can ask ourselves, “would I be comfortable if the people I love took this message seriously? If they made it their ideal, and struggled to live up to it, would I be proud and would it create the kind of community I want to live in? We’re the masters of getting attention, so what we say, matters. Own your message.



4) Show the way.

Help consumers navigate sustainable choices.

Too often we take a myopic view when we think about the functional and emotional benefits of the things we market. We consider their performance in the moment at the point of purchase or use. We’ve imposed a barrier on ourselves by thinking of our audience as ‘consumers’. But ‘consumers’ are actually ‘humans’ with complex lives, moral codes and reputations of their own. Humans care about how other humans are treated, they care about the natural world and the cuddly creatures in it and they care about being seen to be a good person. No one wants their clothes to be made by slaves, no one wants to wipe their backsides on paper from devastated rainforest or to wash their hair in palm oil tainted with the blood of Orangutans. They may not feel they have much choice. They may find the easiest option is to bury their heads and crack on as best they can with their busy lives, but this does not mean that they do not care. It means they don’t feel they have a choice. That’s where you come in. Help people navigate the choices – on product, packaging, website and brand hierarchy. Help them choose between the products that align with their values and those from brands that don’t give a shit. Make social and environmental information clear, simple and understandable. Make doing the right thing, the easy thing to do. Show the way.



5) Be Inclusive.

Engage people from a perspective of compassion.

One of the things I had to get over as I started to truly understand sustainability and the complexities of climate change while studying for my Masters was the Superman Complex. Our egos want the glory of single-handedly saving the world, but the truth is, building a sustainable society is a massive, complex and system-wide challenge. It’s going to take loads of us all doing our bit and pushing from our own angles and perspectives. We can’t afford to alienate and exclude people who can and who want to be part of the solution. Representing the people we don’t like as idiots, bigots and selfish may work to rally the troops, but preaching to the choir won’t be enough. We need to break down barriers and foster a broad church, inclusive movement. Use your research, insights and empathy to dig deep and really understand people’s fears, identify the real barriers to change and engage the laggards, naysayers and apathetic with compassion. Hold your heavy fire for those who truly deserve it. Be Inclusive.



Now Crack On

So there you are. Five principles you can start living by today to bring The Rebellion to your agency. Now get on with it. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If you get shot down, then that’s a clear signal that it’s time to start shopping around for a studio that gives a fuck about your future.

If we all did that, I reckon by 2025 we’d be living in a world where the best talent (you) only worked for agencies committed to doing good. How quickly things would change. How proud you’d feel to be part of it.


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