climate change supermodeling?

Also published at Immanence.

Having just written a piece for Environmental Communication about the promises and pitfalls of cognitive science-based approaches to communicating about issues like climate change, I can’t help commenting on this video and blog post that arrived this morning on my blog reader from identity campaigning, re-posted from Cognitive Policy Works. The piece both captures and fails to capture salient issues in this debate…

The author, Joe Brewer, gets it right in arguing that the video successfully applies the following “lessons” from cognitive science:

1) That our thinking works in visual and embodiment-based metaphors: Yes, the video employs the graphic physical embodiment of such metaphors portrayed through movement, gesture, dress, etc.

2) That it “makes climate change sexy”: Yes, it does this through the way it elicits, solicits, and interpellates the viewer in a process of desire, a directional build-up whereby we want to “finish the job” of stripping the supermodel. It’s left up to us to do that in our imagination. It’s now in our hands, like a video-game joystick. (Take that where you will…) This point is made by Brewer’s second (“sexy”) and fourth (image schemas) arguments. (The latter, his “balance” and “source-path-goal” schemas, are a fancy way of saying that the metaphors are based in the capacities of the body — for movement toward a goal, for balance, etc.)

3) That it’s effective marketing. Indeed. At 160,000 views as I write, it’s now had 50,000 more views since he wrote his piece.

But his point that it “deconstructs the fashion industry” is wishful thinking on Joe’s part. It plays along with that industry, adding fuel to its workings. (Underwear ads are just as much a part of the industry as are ads for jeans and fur coats, and provoking viewers’ desires to see naked bodies doesn’t take anything away from clothing manufacturers’ ability to sell those bodies clothes.) It adds to the normalization of a certain body image for women: all the models are unhealthily tooth-pick thin women, and all follow the script of how sexy women are supposed to look at their audience of unseen voyeurs. (And did anyone else notice that the more they strip, the more they look 15 years old?) Of course, there’s nothing to stop others from doing alternative versions of this featuring non-white models, male strippers, transvestites, or anything else — which is the argument of the pro-porn feminists, the green fashionistas, et al.

But another thing that strikes me is that the final take-home verbal message — “If you want to see 350, our natural state, you have to get your politicians to act now” (emphasis added) — is not conveyed in a visually or metaphorically effective way. When it comes to graphically embodying any kind of action (other than stripping, or being stripped), our cognitive (embodied, visual, metaphorical) mind is left at the door.

The first text comment below the video when I watched it was dagrimreefah’s “This media cartel sure is doing a great job on all of you livestock” — which is probably intended as a witty interjection of climate denialism, but there’s a more general point that could be made with that. A quick glance at the rest of the comments tells us a few interesting things:

(1) Most of them refer to the physiques of the models (some of them, wisely, asking to see more — not less clothing, mind you, but just more healthy flesh covering their bones);

(2) Of those that refer to the science of climate change, a large number deny it and/or politicize it with anti-Obama rhetoric (or with critiques of his compromises);

(3) Not a single one seems to get the metaphor of “supermodels” being both the women displayed and the ways — the only ways — in which we actually know about climate change itself and the role “350 parts per million” plays in it.

Climate change models are highly sophisticated, complex pieces of science that deserve a bit more discussion. Riffing on that, however, would take away from the project of making hegemonic (“common-sensifying”) the message about climate change. But I would argue that part of making that message broader is playing up its science (just to raise awareness of how we know about climate change) and, secondly, playing up its ethics and politics: its potential (and already claimed) victims, its costs, and the vested interests on both sides (“old energy” on one, new entrepreneurialism on the other).

Okay, I’m asking too much of a simple 90-second ad. But discussing the ad seems useful, even if it contributes to the viral spread of something I’m ambivalent about…

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About Adrian Ivakhiv

Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont.
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3 Responses to climate change supermodeling?

  1. maura troester nunez says:

    I think it’s a really bad ad on a number of fronts, but the biggest problem is that it simply doesn’t work to use hot babes removing their clothes to tap into some guy’s sexual instincts and become inspired to contact his local congressperson.

    For a cognitive standpoint, hot babes, congressional leaders and global warming exist within different networks of associations.

    This is a vapid ad, created by someone who doesn’t know much about advertising. My students have done far better than this….

  2. Hi again Joe,

    While it’s a bit much to be commenting on each other on four different blogs at once (!), your comment deserves a reply.

    I agree with most of what you’re saying about the video, just gently disagreeing that it poses any threat to the fashion industry. And while you don’t say it, your comments suggest that anyone’s opinion about the models (their thinness, etc.) is as good as anyone else’s – but there are some criteria for judgment on that kind of thing, including the physical nature of the body itself (which has healthier and less healthy states) and social and historical context of gender differences, bodily objectification, etc.

    On the whole, though, I think it’s a clever ad, and one that’s worthy of discussion and study (as you suggest).

  3. Joe Brewer says:

    Hi Adrian,

    Thanks for continuing this discussion here. I think it is very important that we explore the various aspects of this approach to marketing. I’ve added a new comment on my website that responds in part, but felt it worthwhile to share here too.

    I’ll focus on two things here: the anti-Obama rhetoric and the lack of clarity about exactly how the viewer is supposed to engage their legislator.

    The anti-Obama rhetoric is easily explained. There are millions (roughly 20 or so) of Americans who are thoroughly dismissive of all things liberal (which they have been conditioned to believe is anti-American and fascist through the conservative message machine that pervades our media infrastructure here in the US). These people always come out of the woodwork and disrupt conversations… indeed some of them are trained and paid to do so.

    There really isn’t anything relevant about the video to say about this phenomenon except that it shows that they feel threatened by it and are motivated to “make their presence known” where this video is getting attention. Read into that what you will.

    The lack of detail about how the viewer is supposed to respond is something I consider to be a good thing. Scripted requests like writing your Senator or signing a petition don’t fit with the explorative and playful tone of the video. The strongest impression one is likely to come away with is “be playful” and “try something different.” The emotional tone and its creative elements are key parts of its effectiveness at spreading, afterall.

    Okay, I’ll make a brief comment too about the impressions viewers have of the models themselves (and, by extension, the fashion industry). First off, I must repeat what Robin Chase said, which is that people bring their prejudices to this piece of art and the reactions to it vary dramatically. Anyone who claims that one response (e.g. it’s too sexy) are missing the point that emotionally potent media bring out strongly personal feelings in viewers. There are many reactions and all of them engage with unique patterns of individual people.

    As for the critiques of the models being too thin as a supposed form of support for the fashion industry, the contradiction is in the telling. Those of us who feel that the fashion industry promotes unhealthy ideals for women will see this message in the video (thus undermining any positive feelings we might have about it).

    The point of my analysis was that this video places the fashion industry in a precarious position exactly because critical reactions will arise in the minds of many viewers – which is exactly what is happening.

    Regardless of the ultimate impact of this video on promoting climate action, I see it as a valuable case study for innovation and exploration of new approaches – particularly those intended to reach a broader audience.



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