It’s February, and that means it’s ShowTheLove time. This annual UK campaign run by The Climate Coalition represented a radical shift in climate messaging when it first launched in 2014, at a time of high political polarisation. Climate Outreach promotes it as an example of successful climate communications – and full disclosure, helped shape its messaging.
If you’re British, chances are you’ve seen green hearts alongside red and pink hearts when Valentine’s season comes along. This week is the 8th anniversary of Show the Love, a national campaign by UK-based The Climate Coalition (a network of over 140 organisations) to engage the British public about the impacts of climate change.
Climate Outreach promotes this campaign as an example of successful climate communications, and how well-researched and tested messages which speak to shared values and common humanity can build a mandate for collective action.
The campaign’s core concept is that a wide range of ordinary citizens share, in their own words, the things they love and their concern for how those things will be affected by climate change. It sounds like a simple concept, but in 2014 it represented a major and radical shift in climate messaging.
Climate messaging before Show the Love
For a long time, British climate advocacy organisations’ communications often focused on one of two main approaches: dissemination of the scientific data; and conjectural future visioning, often contrasting a superficial “heaven” of solar panels and bicycles with a dystopian “hell” of extreme weather and social collapse. One widely criticised touring installation, Postcards for the Future, toyed with uglier prejudices using photoshopped images of British monuments encircled by shanty towns of climate migrants.
Government climate campaigns were no different. In 2009, the British government squandered £6 million on a staggeringly ill-conceived TV advertising campaign in which a father read his daughter a bedtime story of rising sea levels and drowning puppies. The advert was launched without any testing in the commercial break during Coronation Street (a much loved British soap opera). It provoked a record number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority and was never shown again.
In the same year, delegates at the COP15 UN climate conference in Copenhagen watched a film in the opening session in which another little girl desperately reached for her stuffed polar bear cub toy as it fell down a crevasse in the cracking ground before they both drowned in a flood.
At the same time, those opposing climate change had become increasingly vocal. Public confidence following the Copenhagen conference was seriously damaged by a misinformation campaign around emails hacked from the server of the University of East Anglia. Throughout the early 2010s, a very active and well-connected climate denial campaign placed regular front page articles undermining climate science across the conservative UK media. A handful of climate sceptics appeared regularly across the media in staged debates and as expert witnesses to parliamentary committees.
As a result, public opinion was strongly polarised along political lines. National polling by The Climate Coalition in 2015 found that Conservative Party voters were half as likely as Labour Party voters to say they were very concerned about climate change, and more than twice as likely to say they were not at all concerned. In parliament, the polarisation was even more marked. In a 2014 poll by Carbon Brief, over 70% of Conservative MPs said that the human causes of climate change were unproven and a third of those supported the view that it was “environmentalist propaganda with little of no real evidence.”
The Show the Love campaign therefore emerged at a time when there was an urgent need to find messaging that could defuse this partisanship and speak to shared values across the political spectrum.
Show the Love: a turning point in climate messaging
The originality of the Show the Love campaign, which first launched eight years ago, was to be grounded in a positive narrative of shared values and identity, and the common experience of love, tenderness and care. Rather than using poster-children images of suffering, it showed intergenerational care and protection. Unlike slick adverts or voice-over infographics, it included real people from different communities, speaking in their own words, talking about their own feelings. It did not shy away from telling hard truths about the dangers of climate change, but it did so in the context of compassion and the truly positive message that we could all come together to protect the things we care about. And it actively reached beyond the green bubble to build a mandate for action, bringing together people of all politics.
The Show the Love theme emerged from a process of audience testing and consultation led by Climate Outreach in early 2014. A tight budget and timeline allowed for four workshops and four distinctively different groups were chosen: trades union members, people of conservative values, environmental activists, and non-environmentalists active in their local communities. This reflected the diversity of membership of The Climate Coalition’s partner organisations and was, to the best of Climate Outreach’s knowledge, the first time that any climate campaign had been tested with “small c” conservatives. It built on Climate Outreach’s report a year earlier calling for climate narratives that could speak better to people with centre-right values.
The Climate Outreach team tested four potential messages, including conventional environmentalist frames around climate change as a gamble, and appeals to a ‘concerned majority’. The Climate Coalition members were surprised to find that the ‘things we love’ theme clearly emerged as the strongest overall message, and for conservatives, the only effective message. Even though people cared about very different things – from “old fat trees” to “Leeds United Football Team” and “parrots” – they understood passion and respected different views providing these were held with “honesty and integrity”.
The Show the Love campaign has produced many materials and videos over the years including films, cartoons, animated films and homemade knitted heart, and many celebrities have been involved (including Jeremy Irons, Stephen Fry, Alison Steadman, Tim Peake, Jarvis Cocker and Meera Syal). Climate Outreach’s view however is that the campaign works best when it features ordinary people speaking their own words.
In the campaign’s original 2014 video (watch below), people talk about their love for fishing, summer, chocolate, football and even driving a taxi around London. The scene in which a grandmother talks about her love for her grandchildren – and gives them a big hug – has the “honesty and integrity” that was so lacking in the staged approach of the creepy bedtime story advert. This Climate Coalition video is still one of the most socially diverse climate communication output produced in the UK and is now a frequently included example of excellent communications in trainings delivered by Climate Outreach.
Success and impact
A key test for any campaign is whether it thrives or fails in the wider world. By this reckoning Show the Love has been a remarkable success. The Climate Coalition found in 2018 that stories around that year’s campaign had a media reach of over 526 million people, and 70,000 people including 80 members of parliament wore and shared green hearts. And it has gone global with for example Al Gore’s organisation “The Climate Reality Project” adopting it in its entirety in their “What I Love” campaign.
The campaign has defied the political polarisation that bedevils climate campaigns, with a strong reach across the political spectrum including the support of three successive Conservative Prime Ministers.
While it’s always difficult to draw a causal link between a single communications initiative and wider social change, there was, alongside the influx of new member organisations with large new audiences joining The Climate Coalition, a thawing of the UK government’s relationship with the issue of climate change and a gradual increase of public concern.
It would however be a mistake to simply replicate the campaign’s concept rather than the process and questions that led to the campaign. The critical decision by The Climate Coalition was to keep an open mind and listen to different audiences. Climate change specialists are so deeply involved in their issue they can’t rely solely on their own judgement when choosing messages for wider audiences. The Climate Coalition also prioritised reaching out to new audiences, beyond those who consider themselves environmentalists. It took more effort, but the results were invaluable.
And crucially, the process led participants through a qualitative exploration of their attitudes, rather than simply testing different messages. The narrative workshop model designed by Climate Outreach starts by exploring people’s values, identity and concerns, before testing the trial messaging. The results therefore reveal the underlying reasons that people prefer or reject messaging, and provide clear guidelines for content and style. It is a methodology that Climate Outreach continues to apply to its research and it is taking these learnings to other countries including Germany and Australia. This relatively inexpensive methodology could have saved the UK government £6million and generated a truly effective engagement strategy.
The context in 2022 is very different to the situation in 2014. Public concern around climate change has shot up the agenda and recent polling finds that in every political group, over two thirds of voters are concerned or very concerned about climate change. But now we have a different challenge: how do we turn this concern to action?
It would be a serious mistake to assume that environmentalists have won the argument and can move away from the careful evidence-based approach that generated Show the Love. As Climate Outreach found in its Britain Talks Climate research, marked differences in attitudes and levels of trust persist across British society. Climate Outreach’s Climate Engagement Lab now uses the insights from Britain Talks Climate and other social science research to support UK climate advocates seeking to engage people across society on climate change. As the British population faces the hard and challenging real life changes required to reach net zero, it is entirely possible that vested interests and political opportunism could once again inflame resistance to climate policy. More than ever we will need messaging that respects our audiences and supports shared purpose.
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