Selling Climate Change

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Sand rises around the Great Wall of China in a 2007 Diesel ad. Text in the upper right corner reads “global warming ready.”

Perhaps by now you’ve heard that Perrier, the sparkling water company, has come up with a way to fix climate change. Ring the bells. Bang the drums.

You’re probably wondering what the idea is. Are the people of Perrier campaigning to end subsidies to oil companies worldwide?


Are they encouraging people to drive less, buy less stuff, and stop pillaging Planet Earth?


More recycling?


The company’s plan is to send a lithe young woman into space to pour some sparkling water on the sun. Yes. That’s the plan.

Well, OK, not seriously–but they made a commercial about it. Because the sun is the problem, and putting it out is the solution.

Earth to Perrier, it’s 2012 calling. The record setting heat-waves, droughts, fires, and storms are only going to get worse. No one knows exactly what will happen but people generally agree that there will be disruptions to our supplies of food and water, not to mention changes to our habitats. There will be other consequences we haven’t predicted. Climate change isn’t a marketing gimmick, and shouldn’t be used as way to sell more stuff.

Because global warming is caused by general overconsumption, most advertising makes climate change worse, if indirectly. It’s not just that we drive too much and fly too much (though we do), it’s that everything we buy comes to us at cost to the planet. That includes sparkling water. It’s not that an advertisement like this is actually more harmful than any other ad, it’s just unforgivably irreverent.

Of course, Perrier is not the first to do this. Italian clothing brand Diesel offered a series of “Global Warming Ready” print ads in 2007. The ads featured young, wealthy-looking white people in post-climate-change settings around the world. Parrots have taken the place of pigeons at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. The Great Wall of China is half-covered in sand. Jungle wildlife encroaches on the Eiffel Tower and at Mount Rushmore, Lincoln’s nose is barely above water. The roofs of skyscrapers have become islands in Manhattan.

It doesn’t look so bad, really. I mean, if climate change is all about hanging out on rooftop beaches and looking fabulous, count me in. I’ll spend every last penny on high-end clothes and sparkling water. I’ll call it stocking up.

The strange thing is, as audacious as these ads seem, they’re also soothing. “Everything will be fine,” they whisper. “Buy more stuff.”

If the cause of climate-changing emissions is overconsumption–of fuel but also of products–then advertisements are a big part of the problem. Perrier and Diesel are not the sole offenders, but the last thing we need is reassurance that altered, extreme climates will be tolerable with new clothes and bottled water.

I questioned writing this post for a couple of reasons. First, I’m extending the reach of the ad to people who may have chosen to live outside advertising’s reach. People who don’t want to be manipulated into buying things. People who don’t want to waste time and energy chasing material goods beyond basic needs. Second, it would be very easy to derail my argument like so: Now here’s a person who takes everything too seriously. Can’t we just sit back at the end of a long, hard workday and watch TV? Advertising is just that, advertising. It doesn’t actually affect anyone. It’s not so bad, watching this imaginative commercial, with rich colors and beautiful people and a lovely sense of resolution. It makes me happy … and thirsty. 

It may be true that I have no sense of humor, but in a situation this grave, why should I? Our government is not responding to dangerous levels of pollution. Our president couldn’t be bothered to attend Rio+20. A group of children sued the Environmental Protection Agency for neglecting to protect the atmosphere, and the case was dismissed by a U.S. District Judge who claimed it was out of his jurisdiction. Our legislators are too busy collecting bribes from Big Oil and Big Industry to create policies that would make sustainability economically attractive.

This is a failure of leadership and a failure of the market. We must respond by making climate change a high priority within the culture. That does not start with soothing advertisements from companies trying to make a dollar before the unpredictable rises up around us. 

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