The New York Times is up today with a stunning photo-essay by Michael Benson called Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity. For people with the slightest interest in the environment, it’s an illuminating look at the sources and consequences of climate change. For marketers, creatives, brands — anyone, in fact, interested in crafting cause-related communications that rise above the general clamor of our contemporary media environment, it’s illuminating in a different way.
Our devices and displays are filled with desperate demands for immediate action, usually on behalf of one good cause or another. Greenpeace wants us to “Save the bees!” PETA is up in arms about a cancelled series on HBO. After a while many cause-related efforts, borne along by emotional appeal, scare tactics and sketchy science, begin to blur into something like “good cause porn.” All urgency, but with little substance. It’s a set of tactics that are effective, perhaps, preaching to and stirring the faithful. But as a communications strategy, it barely puts a dent into public perception.
Benson’s strategy is different. As he writes, “There’s a dispassionate quality to the view from on high.” Exactly. While no doubt his own views on the environment are impassioned, maybe even desperate, he doesn’t get louder. He writes smarter. His tone throughout “Calamities” is calm, understated, sensible — free of hyperbole and, most notably, exclamation marks. The exclaiming he leaves to the remarkable set of images and videos he’s curated for the piece.
And what staggering images they are. Without deviating from his measured narrative, Benson describes “A gunmetal exhalation of coal and fuel smoke that blankets China almost daily.” And there, with our own eyes, we see devastating satellite video of the deadly cloud enveloping the globe’s fourth-largest, and most populous, country. Later, he concludes “(NASA’s satellites) seem to make the case that we’re inexplicably intent on engineering our own expulsion from the garden…”
There’s no fevered urgency. No seething anger, no hectoring of readers, no attempt to inflame. Benson lays out his case, logically, with encouraging, inclusive prose. His supporting media deliver devastating truths. And he trusts the reader to be smart enough, and perceptive enough, to close draw his or her own conclusions. It’s hardly new, but it’s a communications strategy non-profits, NGOs, and cause-related brands, organizations and creatives should learn to follow.