Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day hits middle age

Earth Day was born in 1970, and so was I. Over the past four decades we've grown up together. I'd like to look at what that means to Social Issues Marketing.

Forty years ago, environmentalism (or "ecology" as it was called) was still pretty fringe —— literally. It was something associated with hippies and other radicals. The mainstream burned fuel, sprayed chemicals, and threw trash around like there was no tomorrow.

But pretty soon, things started to change.

This 1971 ad, for "Keep America Beautiful", was an iconic part of my childhood TV experience. Old-fashioned in its stereotype of the "noble savage" (played by Sicilian actor Iron Eyes Cody), and superficial in its focus on refuse, it nonetheless signalled a change in environmental marketing.

Environmental issues became more urgent during the energy crisis of the mid-1970s. Adults waited in line to buy gas, while an entire generation of kids like me was indoctrinated into a new way of thinking through Saturday Morning edutainment like Schoolhouse Rock.

As the resource crunch hit people where they live, consumer products started getting wise to the demand for efficiency.

Meanwhile, as public pressure built in reaction to environmental disasters like nuclear meltdowns, others were busy trying to tell people that everything was fine the way it was.

And then Earth Day and I hit puberty, in the 80s, and started complaining about everything. My biggest issues at the time were the very real possibility of nuclear war, acid rain, water pollution, whaling, and various political outrages that Bono told me to care about.

Remember the old Greenpeace? Me too. Animal issues were big on the radar as well. I recall wearing a "ban the leg-hold trap" button some lady handed me at the mall. The 80s was truly a revival of the sound a fury of 60s protest — or so we thought. But even though aerosols, leaded gas and paint, and DDT were gone, recycling programs were still years away. When I think back to those years, I can't believe how many bad environmental practices were still common.

Cars got big again. Power was back in style. But the environmental message kept on building momentum through the '90s.

And while we gradually accepted cleaner cars, recycling, reduced carbon output (in some cases), and user fees for things like water, a younger generation was growing up in a media environment where eco-everything was just assumed.

Now, on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, "green" marketing is so pervasive that the biggest problem is sorting out the real changes from the "greenwashed" ones. My son, at five, has never known a world where you didn't sort your recyclables, compost kitchen waste, haul around reusable shopping bags, avoid pesticides, and keep an eye on urban air quality. He knows that wasting water hurts nature, loudly decries litter, and makes me write "don't kill whales" on any suggestion-box form he sees (like at the supermarket!).

Happy birthday, Earth Day. Let's hope we don't have a mid-life crisis.

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