Gore glams up global warming fight -- again

Rising prices have done little to curb consumption. Can a $100 million ad campaign from Al Gore do the trick?

By Steve Hargreaves, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Whether it's for national security reasons or to protect the environment, nearly everyone agrees the nation should use energy more efficiently.

Yet despite soaring energy prices and calls from the political left and right, energy use is going nowhere but up. By 2030 it's expected to jump 35 to 40 percent in the U.S. alone.

Enter Al Gore.

Since making his 2006 global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," the man has been front and center raising awareness around climate change.

Now he's embarking on a public advertising campaign estimated to cost between $100 and $200 million a year, one of the largest public service campaigns in history. Expect to see television commercials, newspaper spreads and Internet ads popping up in a few months time.

Funded by donations and proceeds from "An Inconvenient Truth," the campaign will focus on convincing people that they can do something about global warming.

"It's about communicating the urgency and solvability of the climate crises," said Brian Hardwick, a spokesman for the Alliance for Climate Change, an environmental group founded and chaired by the former vice president. "So [people] will demand the kind of change we need."

The campaign won't focus solely on energy - it will also address other factors, from deforestation to methane from cows, that contribute to global warming.

But carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, and most of the carbon dioxide emissions generated by humans come from burning fossil fuels.

The ads won't endorse any specific legislation in Congress - such as bills to raise fuel economy standards, cap carbon emissions or require utilities to buy a certain percentage of renewable power.

Rather, it will attempt to convince people that global warming is not an unstoppable phenomenon that is now out of their control. It will aim to convince people we have the technology and the ability to avoid global warming and the disasters that scientists say it will create, like crop-killing droughts, city-destroying floods. The hope is to motivate people to pressure their political and social leaders to make the necessary policy changes.

"We have all the answers we need," said Hardwick. We want to "reframe the issue as an opportunity, not a sacrifice."

The campaign will be created by the Richmond-Va.-based Martin Agency, the same outfit behind Geico's successful caveman ads and UPS' "What can brown do for you." Martin was also recently chosen as Wal-Mart's (Charts, Fortune 500) lead agency.

"It's a big purchase, people will see it," said Matt Creamer, editor-at-large at the industry journal Advertising Age, although he added that even $200 million was small compared to some big corporate campaigns, which can cost as much as $1 billion.

But can an advertising campaign actually change society?

Advertising experts experts say ads can accomplish a great deal - think of the anti-tobacco campaign or the anti-drunk driving campaign - but it will take time.

The anti-smoking crusade started in the late 1960s, according to Bruce Vanden Bergh, a professor of advertising at Michigan State University. But states didn't ban smoking in the workplace, restaurants and bars until the late 1990s.

"[A campaign] has the potential" to reduce energy consumption," said Vanden Bergh. "But once it starts, you've got to stay with it."

The best way to convince people to use less energy, he said, is to make the ads personable.

"There's a tendency to sum up with an intellectual argument, but ultimately it comes down to emotional issues," said Vanden Bergh.

Jay Newell, a professor of advertising at Iowa State University, said using a man-on-the-street ad, one that holds another person up as an example, would be better than the kind of slick advertisements that are designed to boost brand images, a-la Coke or Nike ads.

"It's a bandwagon strategy," said Newell. "People look around and see what others are doing, and they do the same thing."

He pointed to the rationing drive during WWII, which gave people specific instructions on how to conserve.

"You have to communicate exactly what to do," he said. "Give me the language I need to explain exactly why I'm not [driving over] for Thanksgiving."

It might be necessary to go after people's pride, much the way the "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign got people thinking that littering was somehow un-Texan, said Sue Alessandri, a professor at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"It'll have to almost associate using energy with a character flaw, something that makes it very personal," said Alessandri.

Vanden Bergh used the smoking example: smokers were once considered the heroes, and you were a loser if you complained about someone smoking at the table next to you. Now that dynamic is reversed. The same mentality, he said, needs to be established towards energy use.

Alessandri said any energy campaign should steer clear of calling for a generic action, like simply writing your congressman, for fear that people might just ignore it.

"Isn't that what people have been doing for years?" she said. "People might just be like 'oh, yeah, like that's going to do any good.'"

Fellow conservationists have high hopes for Gore's campaign. And public opinion seems to have shifted to create a more receptive audience.

Recent polls show 92 percent of the American public supports raising vehicle fuel efficiency standards, and 64 percent would pay a higher gas tax if the money went towards renewable fuel research, said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy.

Callahan credited the public support partly to education, outreach, and other publicity campaigns.

She said the Alliance has been trying to raise vehicle fuel efficiency standards for the last 10 years, but it was only this year that Congress is seriously considering a bill along those lines.

"Now we can do it," said Callahan. "The political will is there, the constituents are there."  Top of page