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You almost don’t have to think about the commercial to recall – an elevator, a beautiful young woman and a dorky guy. Suddenly a cartoon tree sprouts up between them, cartoon birds flutter and chirp, leaves sprout around the outline of the carriage. We already know to what it refers, but as the dork shifts to avoid a fake squirrel, she explains to him, “Things are changing.” And indeed they are.

This is embedded green messaging, the evolution of green’s identifying markers from windmills and solar panels to cartoon imagery. Advertisers’ confidence in explaining progressively less is the magic of identifying the company or product with this enhanced new NEW. Our recall of green messaging is very high, and that’s all they need to know. What we know, on the other hand, is up for grabs. The cartoon imprimatur is the apotheosis of reverse sophistication about ecological sustainability, a level of cynicism begging for more than just a raised eyebrow.

The power of collective experience is validation – that we’re not alone but more importantly that we’re not mistaken. It’s a thrill to be part of a group, or so we are told. To sit down, click a button and submit your subconscious to whatever pops up on the screen requires an enormous capacity for resistance. We make use of a discerning eye all of the time – when we buy books, pay for movies, go to see a band. But we turn on the TV and increasingly accept whatever comes. Agencies are rushing into this vacuum-cum-niche to green your company, leaves, squirrels and all, so you won’t be left behind on this new cash cow.

What comes is the notion that we can have it both ways vis-à-vis modern society; that we can at once retain our lifestyles and change them at the same time. The idea is premised on the higher supposition that we needn’t accept, nor take responsibility for, the waste and pollution that created our society and is required to support it. It perversely appeals to our intellect and our pluck, and no matter our religious affiliation, moves life into a spiritual realm in which forgiveness is for the forgiver. And no surprise: the forgiver is us.

Advertisers and marketing genii have always been one step ahead of our logical, human tendencies. As the peril of our planet has come into focus, they have taken things several steps further. The growing awareness we are up against now concerns how we can transcend the uneasy feeling of making it all right by spreading on a little of this or wearing a little of that to soothe our conscience.

In a way, the squared circle being sold back to us is green. Ecological, sustainable, renewable – studies are showing that we recall and respond to green placement and pageantry. Products and services promise to erase our footprints on the beautiful beach with… well, they usually don’t say and the pitch usually ends where it began, a tautological angel dancing on the head of a pin. It’s the promise that they’re selling that appeals to us and, however irrational, the ads also inadvertently violate the contradiction by letting us off the hook. And just to be clear, the first and third person merely describe the separation experience – one side of the screen from the other. We and they… there is no they. Responsibility must be stipulated in the first person, which at once takes the sting out of and heightens the skullduggery.

Television viewing exemplifies the paradox of a passive activity, one that rewards indifference with validation. What does it matter that BP curiously missed the boat on energy alternatives all these decades? They’re on top of it now. Look at any national-level advertising campaign and you can see the mismatch: we are aiming our very best at our most stupid. It’s the perfect fit: highly tested, infinitely funded, deeply considered and slick vs. jealous, greedy, vindictive and uneasy. No contest. But the former may have over-reached by sprinkling their sales pitch with self-preservation.

Because the scheme has an end point; predicated on doing something before it’s too late, green swerves into a higher order worldview just as we have sunk to new lows about how the world works. The softest spot – our own culpability – has been exposed with the connections between the carbon inventories in the atmosphere and how we move ourselves about, read at night, heat and cool our homes. We’ve developed some overwhelming clues about the straining that has been going on all along. The stress on our system is showing, and the seamless integration of buying and feeling good is showing signs of fissure.

Maybe it’s the word green itself that parallels the insult; like the symmetry of running out of fossil fuels just as we reach the tipping point on global warming. If we look closely enough, the ad campaigns are all pointed toward the part they’re leaving out: namely that we CAN contribute to the solution, though the means – conservation, knowing where your stuff comes from – will necessitate the disappearance of most of the products now touting greenery. In the spirit of the political ads, let’s require a disclaimer – this message brought to you by You Don’t Really Need This and Can’t Afford It Anyway.

Because the relationship is all about power and freedom, though not the fictitious versions we’ve been feeding ourselves. We have the power to be free from this messaging. The advertisers have never thought much of us anyway. But as they’re venturing dangerously close to defining living itself as the luxury that it is, we should take them at their word. Turn off, open up, make up and make out. Populism flows upward.


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