Select Page

Did climate change cause Typhoon Haiyan? Time Magazine says no. Australia’s Sidney Morning Herald says yes. The UK’s Guardian says maybe. So goes the news media standoff on climate and superstorms. Duracell is less ambivalent. “There will be more powerful storms,” warns actor Jeff Bridges in the company’s Quantum battery campaign. Take a look:

With just six words and fifteen seconds of imagery, the global battery megalith, a division of Procter and Gamble, sanctions society’s growing fear of weather. As important, it does so in the commercial marketplace, where suggestion becomes lifestyle.

Brilliantly, the inflection of Bridges’ narration gives no hint whether we should fear “more powerful storms,” “more powerful storms,” or both. The ad is equally inscrutable about cause. But it is no large leap from fearing unprecedented superstorms to associating that fear with human induced conditions.

“For anything to become the norm, we in communication argue that there has to be repetition and ubiquity to the messaging,” says Paul Ziek, Pace University assistant professor of media, communications and visual arts.

Ad firms have ubiquitous storm fears on which to capitalize: the near fetishistic coverage of disasters on cable television; the everyday vocabulary of “Katrina,” “Irene,” and “Sandy”; the vogue concept of “resilience” that has overtaken the conference circuit; the newly common usage of the word “superstorm.” In the marketplace, Duracell is not alone in selling our new found state of emergency. Servpro is also running a fifteen-second powerhouse ad:

Robert J. Brulle, Drexel University professor of sociology and environmental science, calls both commercials “a manifestation of Disaster Capitalism,” and warns:

[T]his sort of activity takes the legitimate concern and alarm over climate change that could be harnessed for political mobilization, and channels individuals into shopping. . . The individual becomes the center and responsible for mitigation (ride your bike, quit driving so much, etc.) and now for their own adaptation.

Naomi Klein coined Disaster Capitalism in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein’s short definition is “the rapid-fire corporate reengineering of societies still reeling from shock.” On her website, she cites examples of opportunism ranging from the 1973 coup of Augusto Pinochet in Chile to Hurricane Mitch, which tore through Central America in 1998.

But what if the reengineering of the perception of weather, by Duracell, Servpro and other advertisers, convinces the public that an unpredictably dangerous era of storm events is the new normal?  My Pace Academy colleague Andrew Revkin has tackled the issue of climate communication often in his New York Times Dot Earth blog:

I don’t see better communication, on its own, being remotely sufficient to set the world on a course to shift swiftly from the fuels of convenience — coal and oil — even as human numbers and resource appetites crest.

There are climate campaigners who will say I’m just passing the buck – that if the media put global warming front and center on nightly newscasts and front pages and homepages, people would line up to fight the climate crisis.

The challenge, of course, is that a science-based definition of the “climate crisis” (I still think that climate scientist Richard Somerville defined that term best in a 2007 debate with Michael Crichton and others) is not the kind of message that will get people rushing to the ramparts.

Perhaps the partnership of Disaster Capitalism and product advertising, even if vague on specific causes, and if even for only fifteen seconds, will influence the public in a way science and mainstream news media cannot.

According to Paul Ziek:

A while back Jib Fowles explained [in America Mass Media: Industries and Issues] that there are fifteen basic appeals that advertisers use, one of which is the need to feel safe: to be free from threats.

[If] the vague new threat, and more importantly the need for Duracell to help us survive the vague new threat, becomes the norm, it’s a form of agenda setting and the reason why advertising and public relations budgets are so high … they work.

A New York Times article on the Quantum ad campaign reported Duracell spent $67.6 million on advertising in 2012.