Grim doesn’t begin to describe First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s new movie about Reverend Ernst Toller’s awakening to the tyranny of corporate polluters. The desperately deflated, alcoholic Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, takes a job in a 250 year-old church in the bleak bowels of upstate New York. Among his very few congregants is a young environmental activist, whose despair over the state of the world catapults the psychologically vulnerable pastor into a state of even more dire desperation.
As Toller leaves his monastically furnished bedroom, enters the spartan bathroom, where a single, blazingly bare bulb sheds light on his stream of bloody urine, my husband whispers, “Great SNL material.”
Maybe it’s us—the movie did earn rave reviews— but enough already. Unrelenting, unforgiving and unapologetically bleak messaging around climate change and other apocalyptic scenarios is a stifling turn-off.
From a communications POV, it’s exactly what’s been wrong and stays wrong—with enviro messaging. IT’S TOO EARNEST.
I’m not suggesting that Schrader should have made a comedy or that the New York Times lighten up articles on efforts to open the Arctic National Refuge to oil and gas exploration with a few one-liners.
But does it always have to be so serious, especially when you’re selling stuff? Unless we lighten up the tone, stash away the Birkenstocks (okay, they’re ugly chic now), and start to laugh once in a while, we continue to preach to the converted and fail to give our audience good reasons to like, share, tweet, buy or donate.
A recent study conducted by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Environmental Defense Fund demonstrates that humor is effective in motivating audiences to take action around climate change. For Pathways of Influence in Emotional Appeals: Benefits and Tradeoffs of Using Fear or Humor to Promote Climate Change-Related Intentions and Risk Perceptions, researchers partnered with Second City Works, a marketing offshoot of the improvisational theater troupe to produce a series of online videos featuring a weatherman forecasting weather patterns caused by climate change. The three videos, each with a different tone, ended with the same call to action: “Find out what your local officials and the presidential candidates think about climate change. Have your voice heard on Nov. 8.” The conclusion: the video that made people laugh more motivated to action.
To be fair, although the study shows that humor can be an effective means to inspire young people to pursue climate change activism, fear proved to be an equally effective motivator.
The point, though, is that there is room for laughter, particularly if you’re targeting Millenials. I understand that rising sea levels and extreme weather events are not laugh-your-guts-out funny. But light-heartedness makes issues—even doomsday scenarios—accessible. It breaks taboos. It lightens the mood. It doesn’t need to imply that your organization or company is making a mockery of melting ice caps.
According Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communication at Cornell University, who oversaw the study: "Young people buy green products, they believe in climate change, they're worried about it, but they're not as politically active on the issue as older generations are. And if you look at where Millennials get news information, it's from John Oliver and Trevor Noah.”
So what can organizations and businesses do to inspire social change through satire? Stay tuned for Blog Post Number 2.