Global warming: Are Britain's TV ads too scary for children?

Britain's 'Bedtime Stories' TV ads aim to make parents feel guilty about the impact of global warming on their children. But critics say that fear tactics don't work.

By , Correspondent

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    ‘Bedtime stories’: The campaign depicts cartoon people and animals drowning as a result of global warming. Critics say targeting home life is a bad idea.
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LONDON – Warnings that time is running out for the fight against global warming raises the question: Is frightening the public into changing their behavior really the world’s last hope?

In Britain, a costly government television advertisement has fallen foul of regulators investigating complaints that it is misleading and too “scary” for children.

But it’s not just hundreds of parents who are unhappy with the commercial, which aims to make adults feel guilty about the impact their carbon emissions are having on their children’s future. Environmentalists and green PR experts say scare tactics just don’t work.

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“Bedtime Stories,” a minute-long, £6 million ($10 million) production, features a father telling his daughter a story about “a very, very strange” world with “horrible consequences” for children. Cutting to cartoon scenes of streets and houses underwater, it shows animals and people drowning and a looming monster representing global warming. (Scroll down to watch the video.)

However, consultants who helped the British government draw up climate change communication strategies in the past warn that engendering guilt merely “shuts down” people. Criticizing home and family is also unproductive.

“They both lead to what’s called psychological reactance ... especially when the messenger is an unpopular government,” according to Henry Hicks, a consultant at the green PR firm, Futerra.

Futerra warns against relying on concern about children’s future. It pointed to surveys that had in fact found that childless people may care more about climate change than those with children.

Nevertheless, the government is standing by “Bedtime Stories,” which was launched after its research suggested more than 50 percent of Britons did not think climate change would affect them. Three-quarters (74 percent) also said they would make lifestyle changes now if they knew climate change was going to affect their children.

Britain’s energy and climate change minister, Joan Ruddock, defended the campaign, insisting: “The ad is directed at adults, but we know that the proposition to ‘protect the next generation’ is a motivating one.”

Nevertheless, critics suggest better strategies could be based on behavioral economics, “nudge” philosophy, and ideas on how design can influence behavior.

Fears have long been leveraged in advertising by environmentalists, such as a World Wildlife Fund ad depicting giant sharks circling a stormy New York skyline. Fear and an appeal to parental instincts have, meanwhile, also been employed by Greenpeace in an advertisement produced in Finland featuring a baby left alone in a bath filling up with water.

In the United States, advertisements by the Ad Council and the Environmental Defense Fund featured a man standing with his back turned to an oncoming train. He says the consequences of global warming won’t affect him, and at the last moment steps off the tracks to reveal that a small girl is now in the path of the train.

More recently however, there has been criticism of what some perceived to be an overly depressing message in films such “The Age of Stupid,” a docudrama about a ruined Earth of the future.

George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN), a British charity working to raise climate-change awareness, says that people change their behavior on the basis of what those around them are doing. COIN, for example, is helping trade union members to give workplace presentations and talks about climate change.

To help viewers feel that they can do something positive, the environmental activists behind “The Age of Stupid” film threw their weight behind a British campaign known as the 10:10 initiative, aimed at cutting carbon emissions by 10 percent in 2010.

Others are also not short on ideas for how to connect with the public without scaring them. David Turnbull, the Washington, D.C.,-based director of Climate Action Network International, an umbrella for hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, says a need remains both for campaigns that can startle and those that have more positive messages.

“It’s important to convey, for example, the benefits of stimulating a greener economy. At the same time, with the increased speed of global warming, it’s important to show that there is a serious urgency.”

Mick Hulme, founder of Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, suggests that connecting with people’s personal experiences can ultimately be much more productive than “dressing climate change up as an impending catastrophe for the planet.”

“If, for example, you talk about flooding in their locality, or air quality, that can be much more effective,” Professor Hulme says. “You have to start off with things that are local, tangible, and near term in order to really engage with people.”

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