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To change minds, find the funny

After almost three years of serving and measuring billions of ads, our first campaign remains one of our very favorites.

PEC - Florida Man Campaign

We’re probably all bewildered by “Florida Man” antics that make national news headlines, but perhaps what surprised us all was that a play on “Florida Man” could be highly persuasive climate content – regardless of political values. Increase in climate support among conservatives actually exceeded that of progressives.

While unexpected, the more we dug into the topic of humor and climate change, the more we learned that an alligator in a convenience store was no anomaly.

team of researchers at University of Colorado found “good-natured humor” improved climate change message effectiveness with college students, a team at Penn State found humor could increase activism intentions, and there’s even research that says interacting with climate change memes can increase civic engagement.

Associate Professor Beth Osnes offers an explanation for the “magical” impact of humor. “Climate change isn’t a laughing matter,” she says, “but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution.”

To better understand how to deploy laughs for action, let’s enlist the help of a fake Meryl Streep, a dismembered bodybuilder, and some classic mom enthusiasm.

The data says …

Every communicator has to have a lot of “tools” in their toolkit. And at Potential Energy, humor has been one of the most consistently effective.

One example: How can we shine a spotlight on the danger of carbon pollution in a way that gets attention.

Why not try a fake Meryl Streep?

PEC video

This ad with a Meryl Streep imposter increased strong support for government action by almost 8%, quite a bit higher than ads with a similar but more direct (and serious) message calling out polluters.

Another example: How can we talk about climate science in a way that gets people to lean in? By now, most folks have heard about the risks of climate change so frequently it becomes doom-and-gloom wallpaper. They tune it out, and the message doesn’t stick. So how do we make a simple, concrete fact about climate change – the fact that 99% of experts believe that climate change is real, man-made, and we’re running out of time to fix it – how do we make that fact stick?

Spotlight how singularly ridiculous it is that we’re ignoring them.

Comically-bloody severed limbs: An 8% increase in strong support for immediate government action.

Here’s one more: Heat pumps. An understated but remarkably effective piece of technology – and utterly not funny. But that makes it precisely perfect fodder to make unexpectedly lighthearted content for our audience.

That’s interesting …

In the US, our funny ads were often the best way to reach people who identify as politically independent, who are especially tired of the partisanship divide in this country. Sure, some jokes end up falling flat – we know that – but humor is far less polarizing.

Humor Impact

As Phil McCordic, the host of a popular science program in Canada, puts it, “Climate-change humor stops people from worrying about their politics and lets them take in the information … Getting someone to laugh is half of the work of getting them to understand.”

What to do about it …

  • Find the funny. Go in search of unexpected messengers and humorous insights. Humans have gotten ourselves into a big mess, and while there’s a tremendous amount of tragedy to it, some dark comedy can cut through.
  • Keep it “good-natured.” The researchers in Colorado found humor was effective as long as it was good-natured. Not laughing at anyone’s expense, or poking fun at a group of people, or anything mean-spirited. So make the audience laugh, but make sure they can feel good about their laughter.
  • Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. There’s nothing more humiliating than trying to be funny and failing. But that’s what focus groups are for! Even the world’s best comedians sometimes bomb. Don’t let the fear of flopping prevent you from giving it a shot – and when you hear the involuntary, authentic chuckles from a stoic-faced audience, you’ll know you’ve got it.

Humor can be a very effective way to bring new people into the climate change movement. It can change their perceptions of what “activism” feels like, and it can reassure them that you can still enjoy your life while supporting a serious cause.

Lift, Laugh, Love,
John and Jessica