How Animated Stick Figures Can Start a Fire (Or At Least Evolve the Eco Discussions)

I attended Opportunity Green here in LA this past weekend to get a pulse on where things are now and reconnect with my darker green contemporaries after more than four years of having my head somewhat stuck in the operational sands of Ideal Bite and it’s now parent company, Disney. 

One of my first eye-openers was how much the conversation has deepened around principles that had previously only been discussed on purely academic levels.  For example, the phrase “closed loop processes” was being bantered about the way bra sizes would be at a sports bar. Lorrie Vogel of Nike helped visual a closed loop process in action.  She said that although Nike recycles 23M pairs of shoes a year in its Reuse-a-Shoe program, she wants to turn an old shoe into a new shoe, not just a running track – a concept known as “downcycling” -- as is done now.  Additionally there wouldn’t be any waste created in the manufacturing process -- the byproducts of production would be nutrients for enriching the soil, say. 

The second eye opener is something that has consumed my deepest thoughts over the past year:  We need to evolve the conversation from the importance of taking small steps (like changing to CFLs, bringing your own bag, and driving less) to creating a true transformation, and not just slow us down on our current (not-so-good) path.  So what did I learn at the conference that could ever hope to accomplish such a feat?  I believe, as do many others it turns out, that to correct our course we not only need to appeal to people’s pocketbooks and health concerns but also to the creative, evocative right side of the brain.

The green media brigade, of which I include myself, has done a great job pumping out volumes of easy breezy tips and top 10 ways to save the earth.  Yet, even if everyone in the world adopted all of our tips, we’d still be in trouble because our industrial systems are set up wrong, our economy doesn’t assess a fair price for using natural resources, and we’ve already far exceeded the amount of carbon we can have in the atmosphere for a healthy planet.  (Uplifting, huh? But there is hope. Keep reading.)  This is a hinge moment in history -- so let’s tap everything we know about creating behavioral and systemic change, quickly.  I call upon all “Creatives” in advertising, marketing and the social sciences to help tell compelling stories…online.  Then we’ll let our stories spread like wildfire and burn up that bandwidth… because they are just that good.  

Thanks to the advent of narrowcasting via the web and social media, we no longer need to spend $90M to run ads on the major networks to evolve the dialog as Al Gore did with his “WE” campaign.  

At the conference Annie Leonard shared highlights from her 20 year journey in researching materials usage, and how for years she gave this heady, data-packed presentation.  She explained that materials are extracted from the earth and eventually end up in the landfill, and when done ad nauseam, it creates one giant pile of crap for a planet (I am paraphrasing, clearly).  But people just didn’t “get it.” Then a breakthrough moment came while presenting her idea for the umpteenth time to her contemporaries:  almost as a joke, she used stick figures on a whiteboard to connect the dots.  Light bulbs went off, and so did a viral campaign that has educated over an estimated 20 million* who have watched her 20 minute web film.  

Annie and her producer, Jonah Sachs of Free Range Studios, shared their “keys to success” on how to effectively communicate complex and sometimes unpleasant topics, and I have added links to web videos that exemplify each point (and I promise are worthy of a look-see): 

1. Show the connections.  In the Story of Stuff, Annie literally draws the lines from the forests to the factories to the big box stores to our homes and then to the landfill…how can we not “get it”?

2.  Make it human scale.  Macro level problems seem unapproachable. The Girl Effect takes you through a scenario with just one girl… and only at the end do you see the effect multiplied by the 600M girls in developing countries.    

3.  Simplify without dumbing down.  The Meatrix uses humor and cartoons to help people understand the many, many issues related to factory farming. I was able to show it to my mom even after she told me she didn’t want to know where her meat came from.  Both her tune and her menu plans have now changed.

4. Tell your story with emotions -- not facts.  No web video does this better than YES WE CAN.

5. Speak to core truths -- don’t be lazy and not research your points fully, don’t exaggerate, and don’t leave key things out- even if they don’t support your point.   There are too many negative examples of videos that do this, so let’s move on.

Lastly, for good measure, I’ll add one of my own:

6.  Provide an actionable next step. Here’s my most recent video that, looking back, doesn’t hit the mark on a few of the points above but it does at least empower the viewer with an immediately actionable step to stop those stupid, unrequested phone books from landing at your doorstep. 

If you have been feeling uninspired, take a moment to visit the above web videos – they are all exceptional (besides the last one!) and may provide creative insights into how we can craft our environmental messages with more heart and soul, and therefore have them permeate outside of the choir.  In other words, let’s weave the ancient powers of storytelling into our new medium and rapidly evolve the discussions  - and therefore expand the audience.  Speaking of discussions, do let me know your thoughts on this topic, or submit your favorite evocative right brain creations for all of us to see. Let’s start a few fires today.     


*I did the estimation based on 7M views on the website, 6M views on YouTube, and more than 7,000 schools, churches and other groups ordering the DVD for public viewing.