Why Should the Devil Have All the Best Tunes?

Ian Darwin Edwards
Head of Public Education
Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

"You change people by delight. You change people by pleasure"
Thomas Aquinas

Home | Contents | Abstract | Introduction | Hard Selling Soft Drinks and Soft Fruit | Lessons to be Learnt | Supping with the Devil | Going it Alone | Beware of False Prophets | References


Why is it that the most ingenious and effective advertising is for things we don't need, that do us harm or damage the environment? Worse still, advertising companies constantly appropriate green images - flowers, trees, idyllic landscapes, views of the earth from space - to sell some decidedly unethical or unnecessary products. Isn't it about time that the conservation movement reclaimed this popular imagery and used the methods of the media men to market our vital message to a far wider audience? This presentation shows how some devils-turned-saints have taken a variety of media, including exhibitions and drama performances, and used these creatively and successfully to influence people's attitudes and behaviour in a positive way. Green designers have shown that conservation newsletters, books, videos, on-site interpretation and educational programmes needn't be dull to be informative.



Within the world at large, rather than the narrow confines of academia or botanical gardens how do organisations get their messages across to their target audiences? I have for many years had an unhealthy fascination (and, I admit, even a secret admiration) for the way in which the mass media tries to sell us products or ideas. The skills and techniques that are employed are numerous and constantly changing but in it is possible to arrive at some common generalities:

Really clever advertising can sell us anything. I want to briefly illustrate this with some examples. I have chosen successful marketing campaigns by two soft drink manufacturers which have achieved cult status for their product and, outside the commercial world, a health education campaign to change the eating habits of a nation.


Hard Selling Soft Drinks and Soft Fruit

Scotland's official national drink is whisky, uisge-beatha (water of life) in Gaelic. However our unofficial national tipple is a soft drink made by Barrs of Glasgow called Irn-Bru. It is the colour or rusty nails and sold in bright orange cans to emphasise the Scottishness of the product by association with the stereotyped ginger hair of the "Scots laddie". Originating in Glasgow, once a proud iron, steel and ship-building centre, Irn-Bru was first marketed under the slogan "brewed in Scotland from girders". It actually contains nothing but water, sugar (approximately 10%), carbon dioxide and chemicals. The latter includes the classic cocktail of colouring, flavouring, and preservative, plus the common and widespread plant-derived stimulant caffeine. In Britain, this unremarkable product has achieved remarkable commercial success through one of the cleverest and funniest marketing campaigns of all time. Nostalgia, innuendo, double meanings, wicked humour, catchy songs and ridiculous storylines have all been used to great effect in a promotion which has encompassed magazines, hoardings, painted double-decker buses, cinema and TV. During a recent family holiday my two teenage children, who probably watch less TV than most adolescents (but still more than is good for them), would spontaneously burst into a song from an Irn-Bru advert and then fall into fits of giggles. Needless to say by the end of the trip I was even humming the tune myself although I have never seen the commercial let alone drunk the product.

For those of you who fear I have strayed too far, at a botanical congress, from the plant world, my second example is a product based on two traditional herbal products - a stimulant from the seed of a West African tree and the leaf of a mildly narcotic, Peruvian shrub. Kola drinks, containing Cola nuts were being manufactured in Scotland by the 1870's but it was in 1884 that an Atlanta pharmacist and morphine addict John Pemberton, possibly after reading the formula for Edinburgh Kola in a trade magazine, who added the coca leaf and came up with the "real thing", Coca-Cola". Successful selling means identifying a gap in the marketing an as everybody want easy and immediate access into the good life, Coca-Cola was promoted as the short cut which provided immediate access to nirvana.

This is surely part of the long history, found in virtually every culture in the world, of offering health and happiness in a bottle, a gourd or a pipe. Herbalists, shaman, monks, quacks and conmen have offered us tonics, panaceas and miracle cures. Some, like ginseng or opium, undoubtedly have a physiological basis that has subsequently been supported by scientific medical research. Others like contribo or Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia trilobata) which is seen on the shelves of bars in Belize, soaking in a bottle of rum, and sold by the shot as a tonic and hangover cure, has so far defied attempts to find a pharmacologically active ingredient. The all important thing is the belief which the recipient has in the product.

Coca-Cola marketing has been a classic example of selling a lifestyle rather than simply a soft drink. Some of you will remember the series of TV ads with the cover version of Eurovision hit song "I'd like to teach the world to sing"? Smiling people of many different races and colour, sang their hearts out from a variety of picturesque locations thus capitalising on the success of a wholesome pop group as well of the popular appeal of beautiful, natural places and the underlying suggestion of peace and harmony between cultures. The result of such successful marketing has been phenomenal. The average American drinks 400 cans of soft drink a year, with US Navy personnel toping the consumption league with an average 5 can per day! Outside the USA I don't think I have ever visited a place where Coco-Cola (or its major rival) wasn't available.

Another, less high profile, but nevertheless interesting and relevant example of successful marketing involves consumption of soft fruits in Finland. In this cases advertisers were not trying to sell a product but to change people's habits. Twenty years ago the Finnish had an appalling record for heart disease. A campaign to reinstate a popular "berry culture" by encouraging people to eat more soft fruits has been one important factor in successfully raising the average age of people entering hospital with heart attacks from 53 to 73. Raspberries in particular as well as containing high levels of vitamins contain antioxidants which reduce coronary disease by mopping up free radicals. I recently spoke to an Edinburgh marketing man who is involved in the new Scottish Office campaign to encourage the Scots to eat rather than export more of our substantial soft fruit crop. "Our task" he said in a matter-of-fact way, "is to make raspberries more sexy".


Lessons to be Learnt

Coca-Cola has made a huge commercial success from their patent herbal recipe, containing only three species of plant, but how are we going to convince the world at large to appreciate the immense value of the other 249,997! Perhaps the problem is that we take ourselves just a bit too seriously. The thirteenth century mystic Saint Thomas Aquinas understood that if you wanted to change peoples attitudes and lifestyles this was better done by making the alternative a more attractive proposition rather than condemning the present condition. Sam Ham, the American guru of interpretative planning, says more or less the same thing during his touring circuits. Make people feel good - hit the pleasure centres of the human brain. Those of you who have had the pleasure at being at one of Sam's workshops will have witness that unlike some "communication experts" he really does practice what he preaches and he is a very entertaining man.

Valuable time could be taken to analyse how commercial companies deploy the popular media to market their products and services. The experience gained would certainly help us plan a conservation campaign which would reach a wider audience more effectively. Good media people are generally not fussy and will work for anybody if the money is right. It you have a project which is well funded, through sponsorship from corporate, government or charitable sources, and can afford to pay the going rate for a professional designer to sell your message then it will be relatively easy to find someone to suit your needs. If your organisation is not able to attract funds, however, then it is sometimes possible to find companies who will offer special low rates or even free services to conservation bodies. In London, Media Natura has been successful in creating partnerships between some of the most dynamic media organisations and environmental groups. When a marketing or design company works with a conservation organisation for free or at a non-commercial rate they can perhaps claim this as a tax deductible charitable donation.


Supping with the Devil

There have been a number of occasions in recent years when conservation organisations, including botanic gardens, have been in the fortunate position to have funds and have been able to collaborate with professional designers to produce posters, publications or exhibitions which have been used to sell a message in an effective form to a large number of people. The difference between the output from these collaborations, and some of the more traditional conference-style posters and publications, has been very obvious. I have enjoyed working with designers on a few projects myself, and soon realised that they do see the world in a different way from most of us (by most of us I mean people like me who have entered the botanic garden world via the traditional route of a science degree). A good exhibition designer understands human psychology as much as graphics or three-dimmensional structures and will be able to help you take your message and turn it into something which is digestible by a large number of people.

Exhibitions in which the message is delivered in short, punching headlines with strong powerful images are likely to have greater impact on a large number of people than those with long lengthy texts which cover many more aspects of the situation. Widely published research has repeatedly shown that 99% of the population will not read more than 30 to 50 words at any time and yet very many organisations, including some of our best museums, continue to provide the visitor far more information than they are ever capable of digesting. Are museum or exhibition curators writing for the public of for their contemporaries, whom they fear will regard their output as trivial or insubstantial if it does not contain sufficient detail and discussion.

When designing for children we have sometimes managed to loose the words altogether. Sensorama is a children's exhibition at RBGE designed to show how people, animals and plants interact through using different senses. Children, quite naturally, come up to the exhibits and immediately begin interacting with them. They are learning by experiment from a range of visual and other sensory signals, not needing to first read the instructions. By offering rewards in the way of pleasant smells, exciting visual stimuli, or whatever, children rapidly learn something about the natural world they live in. Much more so, I believe than when they encounter the traditional two dimensional pictures-an-text type of exhibit which is perhaps better presented in book format.


Going it Alone

The second approach, and the one I have had most direct experience of, has been to distill from what we see in the commercial world some of the key features of an effective media campaign and to incorporate some of these, in our own distinct and original way into a format for promoting our environmental message. We could each make our own list of what aspects of popular advertising appeal or are successful. It would include some of the areas already mentioned such as humour, clarity, succinctness, etc but for me one of the essential elements of any effective form of communication is story. Matthew Fox (1963) puts it superbly in the introduction to his essay Stories that Need Telling Today,

"Our culture is filled with storytelling. Every advertisement we read or see is really a story - cleverly, artistically, and expensively told. Consumerism is the primary tale of our civilisation." Fox feels we, in Western society at least, are addicted to consumerism and "goods and goodies" have replaced other important, more satisfying aspects of our lives. He believes that Nature can provide this missing element in peoples lives and asks the question: "Can we offer an alternative story?" Surely it is possible to make a tree, a rainforest or a rare plant as satisfying as a can of coke or a new CD?

At Edinburgh we have had some experience in trying to tell stories which encourage a positive response to nature and perhaps, ultimately, responsibility for the natural world. One of the more obvious ways in which we approach the telling of stories is through drama. This can take many forms and an element of drama or role-playing might be found in many of our standard programmes run by education staff not only special performances involving professional actors or drama students.

I first encountered drama being successfully used to sell a message on this continent, at the Korup National Park, in Cameroon. Since then I have witnessed the power of this form of communication on a number of different occasions and believe that it is a another innovative way to introduce your message to people who would not attend more didactic classes, lectures or exhibitions. Working with professional storytellers and actors has also been valuable training education staff and garden guides who have improved their own presentation and communication skills, incorporating aspects of the performers art into their own roles. In this way the boundaries between art and science are further blurred.


Beware of False Prophets

power has the tendency to corrupt. I predict as the public get used to hearing more an more from environmentalists they will have to learn to discriminate the conservation message from propaganda. Logging interests in Western Canada spend millions of dollars in every year on very high profile PR but it is done so subtly it often requires a more than superficial understanding of the issues to determine whether a particular brochure or exhibition is coming from the "greenies" or the industry. People are confused and the media people exploit that confusion by selling the idea of "tree farms" (a euphemism in Western Canada for industrial forestry involving clear felling followed by replanting with a limited range of species) as the only sustainable long-term alternative to old growth forest which they like to describe as degenerate.

In much the same way in Britain the agro-industry could be accused of exploiting the confusion over genetically engineered food crops, by putting out advertisements in all the national newspapers which say, in essence, "trust me I'm a scientist". In this one the headline "We believe that food should be grown with less pesticides" sets out deliberately to confuse. I am not saying that conservation organisations should necessarily be taking sides in this debate but nor can they afford to opt out. We must encourage free and thorough discussion on this major issue concerning the marketing of the genes for which we have been among the most important traditional guardians. Education is the most valuable service we can offer the population and it must never be confused with propaganda.

Ally Ashwell in her brilliant and visionary analysis of education management in botanic gardens encouraged education managers to obtain a new perspective on their organisations by using metaphors. What metaphor is appropriate for a botanic garden? The ark has long been popular, although today most conservationists appear to agree that we need to be putting more effort into stopping the flood than building the life raft. The living encyclopedia is a personal favourite and one already mentioned a number of times at this conference. Another useful metaphor, however, is the shop window for plant conservation. By showing our huge number of visitors the very best of what nature has to offer we will win more converts to our side. This is possibly the most useful role we can play in supporting the survival of our institutions, the plant kingdom and ultimately our home planet.



Fox, M (1993) Stories That Need Telling Today in Sacred Stories C & A. Simpkinson (eds.). Harper Collins, San Francisco


Copyright 1999 NBI