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A Thesis in
The thesis of Christopher M. Toutain was reviewed and approved* by the following:
Stephen H. Browne
Thesis Adviser
Jeremy Engels
Thomas W. Benson
Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Rhetoric
Head of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences
*Signatures are on file in the Graduate School.
As concern over environmental change has increased over the past several decades, so
too has the presence of advertising messages that feature appeals constructed on the theme of
environmentalism. Whether these messages are extolled for raising public consciousness of
environmental issues, or criticized as merely corporate posturing, or “greenwashing,” there is no
question the messages have become part of contemporary public culture. As such, these
messages should be considered for the potential implications they have for the way people
conceive of and interact with the environment. This project engages those possibilities,
considering the application of nature themes in “green corporate advertisements” to invite
emotional responses from the audience. The ways these emotions are invited bear implications
for the ways audiences understand nature, and the present state of environmental communication.
Importance of Popular Culture and Media......................................................................... 10
Bringing “Green” to Traditional Products......................................................................... 20
Environmentalism Through Cleaning Power.................................................................... 43
Chapter 4. RELIEF IN CONVERSION TO IBM......................................................................... 70
IBM Green Machine Commercials and Environmental Ideology..................................... 70
Implications of Nature, Conversion, and Ideology........................................................... 82
Human/Nature Interaction................................................................................................. 86
Notes............................................................................................................................................ 109
The Rhetorical Landscape of Environmental Communication and Popular Culture
Turn on a television, flip through a magazine, read the billboards as you drive down the
highway. Before long you will encounter an advertisement for a consumer product that not only
promises to improve your life, but save the earth at the same time. This type of advertising is
known as “green advertising.” These messages encourage “people to buy more by suggesting
they should buy a certain product because it is good for the environment.” 1 In this project I will
examine the environmental appeals of three different green advertising campaigns with the aim
of constructing a better understanding of the rhetorical appeals present in these ads. Improving
this understanding will assist in providing a clearer grasp of the reasons for the success of these
appeals, and the possible implications these messages have for broader cultural perceptions of
the environment and environmentalism. The project will launch primarily from critical
perspectives and a theoretical grounding based on previous works in environmental
communication and rhetoric, media, and popular culture.
The examination of three specific environmentally themed corporate advertising
campaigns will seek to answer the question: in what ways do these ads utilize nature to invite
particular emotional responses from the audience? Some additional questions that will be
considered to aid in answering the primary question will be: To what degree does nature appear
to be the product of consumption? Is nature depicted narrowly or broadly? What role does the
distance between humans and the environment play in the appeals? And what function is nature
depicted as serving in the advertisements?
In order to give the texts and questions appropriate attention, one target emotion will be
considered for each campaign. The target emotions and corresponding consumer advertising
campaigns that will be examined in this study are: (1) a desire for freedom, present in Toyotas
campaign for the Camry Hybrid; (2) societal guilt/responsibility, present in Dawn dish soaps
Dawn Helps Save Wildlife campaign; and (3) relief, specifically from environmental
responsibility, present in IBMs series of Go Green commercials. Each of the coming chapters
will be devoted to one of these campaigns. The chapters will first explain the advertisements,
consider the depictions of nature, and present arguments for the invitation of the proposed
emotional appeal in each. After the various nature-based emotional appeals have been unpacked,
the advertisements will be examined for the ways the depictions of nature and invitations of
emotion construct rhetorical messages that have potential implications for audience response and
broader social constructions of the environment and interactions between humans and the Earth.
The environment and environmentalism are both enormous topics. It is expected that a
certain amount of variation in the answers to these questions will be found between
advertisements calling upon different emotions. The use of nature to evoke guilt is likely not the
same nature used to invite a desire for freedom. Therefore, beyond the previously listed
questions, the individual advertisements will also be considered against one another. The
advertisements will be compared for several important reasons. One is that it will allow for the
consideration of why some applications of nature appear more or less in specific emotive appeals
and not others. Additionally, as components of contemporary popular culture, these
advertisements are rarely encountered in a vacuum. Rather, popular culture allows for the
“coalescence of ideas and images” about a concept. 2 Therefore, comparing the advertisements
will assist in constructing ideas about the possible impacts of these ads collectively, as audiences
constantly encounter multiple ads at once.
Environmental Rhetoric. The potential value and contribution of this project depends
considerably on the rhetorical weight that can be supported at the intersection of environmental
communication, media, advertising, and popular culture. A better grasp of the various
components of this intersection, the history behind them, the previous studies in which they have
been a central focus, and where the study of rhetoric fits into these topics is necessary prior to
looking critically at the specific advertisements for this study. Scholars in a variety of fields
have studied environmentalism for quite some time. Some of the key works in the field of
rhetorical studies include Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacuqeline Palmers 1992 Ecospeak, the
1996 publications of Earthtalk, edited by Star Muir and Thomas Veenendall, and Green Culture,
edited by Carl Herndl and Stuart Brown, and recently, in 2006, Robert Coxs Environmental
Communication and the Public Sphere. These books address a wide variety of aspects of
environmental rhetoric – ranging from language functions, to the specific words used in public
forums, scientific activism, utopian visions, published environmental narratives, and public
policy making, to only name a few. 3 Although many of the specific studies in these works do not
directly consider advertising and corporate messages they involve aspects of environmental
rhetoric that are relevant to a complete understanding of the societal reception of advertising
messages. The words used in town hall forums on environmental concerns may differ from the
words used in advertisements. However, such a study remains useful in illuminating the
intersection of society, the environment, and persuasive appeals. For example, while Ecospeak
does not directly address corporate green advertising, it provides valuable insight to the origins
of environmental thought, dating back to Thoreau and Muir. It also illuminates the more recent
shifts towards rhetorics of sustainable development presented under the heading of business
solutions. 4 These foundational works on environmental communication will be of primary
importance for this project, despite the distance they have from advertising.
Another reason these works on environmental rhetoric are crucial to this study is the
historical background they provide. Nature has been a common value signifier for advertising
messages since the 1920s. 5 Since it was not until the 1970s that “critical attention to „green
advertising and marketing surfaced,” a wider collection of work on environmental rhetoric will
allow for an understanding of the roots of contemporary environmentalism, and a view of how
conceptions of the environment and environmentalism have shifted over time. 6 The term
environmentalism has evolved over time. While contemporary appeals and arguments on
environmentalism frequently address concerns of global health and human existence and impact
(such as Al Gores popular film An Inconvenient Truth) environmentalism originated from a
concern for conservation. As noted by environmental scholar Robert Cox: “environmental
communication grew out of the work of scholars who used the tools of rhetorical criticism to
study conflicts over natural resources, including wilderness, forests, farmlands, and endangered
species.” 7 From this narrow beginning, the field expanded as scholars began “to include the roles
of science, media, and industry in responding to threats of human health safety.” 8
Most recently, rhetorical studies have examined the further expansion of the field of
environmentalism and the inclusion of depressed, urban conditions. Scholars such as Robert
Bullard, James Garvey and Phaedra Pezzullo have developed the area of environmental racism
out of concern for the ethics rooted in handling environmental change. Their works have called
people to not only view the environment as the untouched “natural” spaces found in state parks
or other undeveloped areas, but also those concrete-filled urban spaces that are equally if not
more susceptible to pollution and toxins. 9 These works are aimed at gaining audience
recognition that issues such as petrol chemical plant pollution in poor neighborhoods in New
Orleans are just as much environmental concerns as the logging of trees in Oregon or
snowmobile regulations in state parks. 10
Critical Works on Green Advertising. Unlike the work of Bullard and Pezzullo, not all
efforts involving environmental communication and the classification of environment or
environmentalism work to expand the definition. One particular type of message that may
function to limit the definition of environment(alism) is the kind found in corporate
advertisements for consumer goods. It seems logical that corporate green advertising would
limit the scope of environmentalism. Ultimately, green marketing is about selling products. 11
the expansion of the term it has come to encompass some very harsh, ugly situations that are
unlikely to be useful for a company attempting to sell a product. Toxic tours function in part to
open the eyes of the audience to the severity of situations beyond their daily lives. Green
product advertisements focus on how individual audience members lives will be improved
through the purchase of a product or consumption of a good. Therefore, while concerns of
environmental racism and toxic sites often focus on a future that will become increasingly
negative in the absence of action, consumer advertisements appeal to the potential for an
improved future through the purchase of a product. The requirement of a positive depiction of
nature limits the types of nature presented in green advertisements. Such limits inevitably work
to reduce the definition of the environment.
The examination of consumer advertisements that present environmental appeals and/or
narratives is not a completely new venture. There are several previous scholarly works on
advertising and environmentalism that will help guide this project. Three works in particular that
have trajectories similar to the aims of this project are Greg Dickinsons “Joes Rhetoric: Finding
Authenticity at Starbucks,” “Rejuvenating Nature in Commercial Culture and the Implications of
the Green Commodity Form,” by Mark Meister, Kristen Chamberlain, and Amanda Brown, and
“Good Food From the Good Earth: McDonalds and the Commodification of the Environment,”
by Stephen Depoe. 12
Each one of these works examines a different marketing campaign or
commercial design for specific applications of nature within a larger environmental appeal.
At first glance Dickinsons piece on rhetorical messages at Starbucks appears to have
little to do with the environment. Much of the article focuses on the construction of personal
identity and authenticity. However, Dickinson also develops substantial critiques of Starbucks
application of nature across the brand – from the product and store décor, to advertising and
packaging. 13
Dickinson argues that for Starbucks, a focus on nature and natural is important
because it attests to the quality of the coffee. Upon walking into a Starbucks one at once smells
the “ground and brewed coffee,” which “immediately tells the visitor that the coffee is „fresh, a
sense that is closely connected to „natural.” 14
The natural origins of the coffee are further
extended, Dickinson suggests, by the wide use of the color green in Starbucks logo, and
throughout the store. 15
Dickinson also examines Starbucks use of nature and natural to replace
or hide certain aspects of the coffee industry. He asserts that Starbucks use of the color green
invites the audience to connect the company with “the lush rainforests of Central America,”
rather than the rampant economic inequalities present in the coffee industry between poor coffee
farmers and wealthy roasting and distribution companies:
The green steps over one set of uncomfortable global relationships that make coffee
possible, covering the (brown) bodies of the people who grow, pick and process the
coffee and in so doing locates the Starbucks customers body in relation with the coffee
trees and rainforests rather than oppression and back-breaking work. 16
With this critique Dickinson establishes several points that will be important for this project.
One of them is that appeals to nature do not have to be directly tied to environmental concerns in
order to be applied in advertising and corporate messages. An appeal to nature does not by
default classify an advertisement as built from an environmental standpoint. Additionally,
Starbucks application of “natural colors” in an attempt to divert attention away from less
desirable aspects of the coffee industry suggests that the theme of nature is a very powerful one.
It not only has the capacity to set an environmental tone, but can also function as a rhetorical
frame to guide the eye of the customer away from problematic issues, regardless of the direct
connection being made to the environment. The ability for nature to direct attention in
advertising often leads to concerns of greenwashing; or claims that companies continue to
operate in non-environmentally friendly ways despite the suggestive presentation of a line of
“green” products. 17
An understanding of the use of nature to frame persuasive appeals is crucial
to critiques of green corporate advertisements. Almost every one of these advertisements must
simultaneously present some aspect of the company or product as environmentally friendly or
sustainable, while at the same time making an appeal to increased consumption – which by
definition almost always runs counter to environmental efforts. As noted by Sharon Beder:
Since manufacturers still make environmentally damaging products and retailers still sell
non-green products on the shelves next to the green ones, it is evident that green
marketing is merely a way of expanding sales. If they were genuinely concerned to
protect the environment they would replace the unsound products with sound ones, not
just augment their existing lines. 18
The connection between nature, natural and the environment that Dickinson addresses is
a focal points of Stephen Depoes: “Good Food From the Good Earth: McDonalds and the
Commodification of the Environment.” Two of Depoes arguments in this piece are very useful
for this project. One is the idea that appeals can be made that will shift the groundwork of
environmental issues. The other is that this can be achieved, in part, through the
commodification of positive environmental themes. In critiquing a McDonalds advertising
campaign, Depoe suggests that by simultaneously presenting the audience with ways
McDonalds was becoming more environmentally friendly, and ways the audience members
could personally eat healthier at McDonalds, the company was attempting “to define the
environmental issue in order to shift the discussion away from considerations of public welfare
and corporate responsibility and toward technical and personal dimensions of those issues.” 19
other words, the company was seeking to highlight the impact individual consumers could have
by purchasing a hamburger boxed in recycled cardboard rather than Styrofoam, in an attempt to
divert attention from larger company-wide environmental impacts (stemming from production,
transportation, etc).
Depoe also argues that McDonalds strengthened the environmental claims of the
campaign through the commodification of the “good earth.” He explains:
The products of business, from blue jeans to McDonalds hamburgers, can be understood
not just as objects intended for use of consumption, but as texts with a range of possible
ideological meanings to be negotiated by consumers of those products. Commodification
occurs as producers of goods and services attempt to manipulate the cultural meanings of
products by linking those products with broader, positive community values in order that
consumers will associate the product with the positive communal value. 20
Depoe examines this commodification in one of McDonalds television advertisements. He
argues that by attributing positive values to the earth and those bodies within it as “natural,” the
commercial depicts agriculture “as the point of merger between our concerns about the
environment and out concerns about proper nutrition.” From this approach McDonalds builds
the larger claim: “the earth is „good in that it provides the food and that it remains undisturbed
by that production.” 21
In addition to critiquing the use of nature both as a framework for environmental appeals
and as a good to be commodified to promote consumption, nature itself can also be a
consumptive good. Meister, Chamberlain and Brown consider this in “Rejuvenating Nature in
Commercial Culture and the Implications of the Green Commodity Form.” They argue that
“Nature remains, and will always be conceived in American culture as a commodity form,
precisely because it operates in a capitalist system,” and that as the green commodity form is
desired, “the consumption of nature in green commodities, such as nature-based beauty products
. . . increases public demand . . . for nature „as a product.” 22
For Meister, Chamberlain and
Brown, this desire to consume nature is problematic. They argue that in the case of AVEDA
products and promotional materials, “advocacy for the environment simply involves being a
„conscious consumer who buys environmentally „friendly (themed) products and does not
address the embedded ethical questions of redefining environmental advocacy as
consumerism.” 23
After a detailed analysis of AVEDA products the authors find that “ultimately,
the green commodity form (as depicted by AVEDA) fails to change ecological consciousness
while reinforcing consumer consciousness.” 24
These specific case studies of corporate advertising and promotional campaigns will
inform this project not only through the conclusions they have drawn and the ways the critiques
have been carried out, but also through the points that appear when these pieces are read
together. Reading Dickinsons piece alongside the article by Meister, Chamberlain and Brown
suggests the possibility of new perspectives and ideas to be found in green corporate
advertisements by simultaneously examining nature as it functions as frame (Dickinson) and as
product (Meister, Chamberlain and Brown). The work of Depoe along with Meister,
Chamberlain and Brown also affirms that nature and the protection and care of the environment
are themes that are frequently the subjects of corporate commodification. The combined
contribution of these works provides a groundwork from which to launch an analysis of green
consumer advertisements aimed at a new set of critical questions.
Importance of Popular Culture & Media
Green consumer advertisements that are built on appeals to nature hold rhetorical
significance beyond a simple presence or absence of rhetorical appeals. Commercial advertising
is a component of contemporary popular culture. As such these advertisements play a significant
role in the ways consumers conceive of nature, the environment, environmentalism, and their
everyday worlds. People are constantly interacting with messages of consumption in their daily
lives, and these interactions impact their beliefs and worldviews. In the introduction to their
edited book, Enviropop, Mark Meister and Phyllis Japp note that for “cultural critics from
Habermas to Marx and Raymond Williams to Judith Williamson” popular culture has been “an
incredibly powerful epistemological force” that “is a major contributor to our understanding of
many facets of life, including the environment.” 25
They situate advertisements as part of this
culture: “advertising constantly urges us to consume more of everything, arguing that satisfaction
and happiness are achieved through purchasing goods of all sorts.” 26
Regarding the intersection
of commercial advertising and the environment and nature, Meister and Japp explain:
What we do know is that nature is a prominent backdrop…