Chicago Green Jobs

Data Based Advertising: Saving Kids From Speeding Trains Since 2010
January 18, 2011, 12:07 pm
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change

Take a moment to envision an advertising agency. I bet you came up with a bunch of cooler than thou hipsters who drink and womanize in sleek, minimalist offices, right? I used to work in an advertising office so I am here to tell you that you are absolutely right! But here’s the interesting part: when it comes to trying to convince people to take action on climate change, those expensive square glasses and ironic t-shirts clothe the soul of Helen Lovejoy on the Simpsons.

Witness the collection of hilariously depressing climate change ads compiled by GOOD. A little girl staring down an oncoming train, a parade of big eyed waifs narrating their ruined future, a baby drowning in a bathtub. The idea is to make people stop and think about the consequences of their actions on future generations. Unfortunately, these ads don’t work. At all. In fact, a recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that advertisements that present children as the primary victims of climate change actually make people significantly less likely to take action.

Why “Think of the Children” Ads Don’t Work

Matthew Feinberg at the University of California, Berkeley speculated that the mechanism at play here is the “fair world” bias. Most Americans believe that life is fair and that the world is an inherently just place. When that belief is threatened, we become more likely to both reject data supporting the threat and to refuse to take action.

Feinberg and his partner, Robb Willer, devised a neat little experiment to test this idea. First, he had his subjects unscramble one of two sentences: “Somehow justice will always prevail” and “Often, justice will not prevail.” That created one group of people primed to think of the world as a just place and one group primed to think that life just isn’t fair. Then subjects took a survey rating their belief in the strength of the evidence for climate change and their willingness to take action. Next they watched the “girl on the train tracks” ad and the “clock is ticking on my future” ad. Finally, they retook the survey measuring their belief in the strength of the evidence and their willingness to take action.

Check out the findings Scientific American reported:

“participants primed to have a stronger belief in a just world reported levels of skepticism that were 29 percent higher, and a willingness to reduce their carbon footprint that was 21 percent lower, than those primed to see the world as an unjust place.”

In other words, we’ve been spending millions on ads that reduce the chances that the viewer will take action.

What Works Better

We’ve known for a few years now that the best way to get someone to change a habit is to invoke a social norm. The ideal message is “people like me do X” where X is the habit you want to encourage. This is the principle behind one of my favorite orgs, Alliance for Climate Education. Their trainers visit high schools with one of the most engaging climate change presentations I’ve ever seen. ACE trainers demonstrate to their audiences that across the nation high school students just like them are taking action and direct them to a platform that makes it easy to connect with their peers across the country and start taking action themselves. (Full disclosure: I was tangentially involved with their new Do One Thing campaign).

For a closer look at other successful social norms campaigns, check out my old pieces on convincing hotel guests to reuse their linens or convincing NASCAR fans to hate fuel economy regulations.

Data, Data, Data! I Cannot Build Bricks Without Clay!

This whole debacle is an argument for data based marketing and advertising. It’s not enough to base a behavior change campaign on gut feelings or half baked ideas about triggering emotional buttons. In fact, even if you build a campaign based on studies and scientific theories you still have to go out and test the efficacy of your program. The more information you have about how people actually react to your program the better you can make it.

And I’m not just saying that because I really hate watching babies drown while I’m trying to enjoy Castle.


The Three R’s: Now Brought To You By Robitussin!
December 22, 2010, 9:00 am
Filed under: Innovation in Education

And F is for Floppy Disk!

We’re coming up on the winter solstice and you know what that means! A total lunar eclipse AND a looming deadline for anyone looking for a good deed to do to make the baby Jesus happy on his birthday. Well, I’ve got a doozy of a deed for some lucky duck out there: represent the interests of the Los Angeles Unified School District as they start selling access to their kids to corporate sponsors.

I can practically hear you shout “Really? Have we finally come to Polynomials brought to you by Pepsi? What the hell do we pay taxes for then?” Funny you should ask. Check out these fun facts from a New York Times story:

In the past three years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut $1.5 billion from its operating budget, now down to $5.4 billion. As recently as last month, 1,000 more employees lost their jobs in layoffs. And Governor-elect Jerry Brown suggested Tuesday at a budget forum that schools could expect more drastic cuts when he presents a new state budget next month.

Okay fine. We have to work with what we’ve got in this life, and we’ve clearly got a community that can’t or won’t raise enough money through corporate and personal taxes to educate its citizens. And hey – selling naming rights to a school stadium isn’t so bad! $1.5 billion is a big gap and if they can pull in some real dough then maybe this is a sensible way to manage in These Hard Times! So how much cash are we talking about?

“Officials say the plan could generate as much as $18 million for the schools.”

So…we’re going to have a Dora The Explorer Elementary for a measly 1.2% of a budget gap three years in the making? The piece doesn’t say if this estimate represents a one time or annual payment, but there is no way to massage these numbers and feel good about the answer.

So here’s where the good deed comes in folks: don’t let LAUSD sell its birthright for a mess of pottage. These guys need a pro to put an accurate price on a captive audience of more than half a million members of an extremely desirable market segment. And they need a barracuda to write up the contract. Not only should LAUSD squeeze every single dollar possible from this deal, they need the flexibility to end it.

You know, just in case there is a Christmas Tax Miracle.

Can You Teach Gumption?
December 20, 2010, 9:34 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change, Innovation in Education

Well, not *these* cool kids.

All the cool kids these days are interested in figuring out how to teach problem solving and critical thinking in schools. So how do you teach these things if you do if you don’t have a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer or a mom as rad as that guy from Groupon has?

According to the New York Times the new chief accountability officer of the NYC Department of Education, Shael Polakow-Suransky, thinks part of the answer is overhauling standardized tests. Polakow-Suransky’s take is that since teachers are already under pressure to teach to the test we might as well give them a test that promotes the learning of useful skills. Take a look at this sample question from the NYT piece:

“Students would be asked to calculate the diameter that a straw needs to fit through a juice box’s hole, then write to a juice box manufacturer whose straws keep getting stuck in the hole to explain why its diameter should be changed.”

This is a great test question. Not only does it elicit information about math and writing skills, the structure of this question teaches three important ideas:

1. Context is everything. This problem is built around a situation in which being able to calculate the diameter of a circle would actually be useful (if not exactly thrilling). When I was a kid I delighted in claiming that I would never ever use math when I grew up, so why bother learning it? I was sort of right in that I really don’t swan around doing long division for kicks. But I was mostly wrong because now I’ll never get to be a roller coaster design engineer.

2. Problem solving is interdisciplinary. The structure of the problem communicates that having both technical skills AND communication skills will get you farther than either on their own. This is certainly true in real life where the really interesting and well paying jobs tend to be held by the well rounded. *

3. Ideas are worth sharing. Look how this question just assumes that the student has every right to start a conversation with a business executive about solving a problem. This is a subtle way to teach students that it’s a good idea to take your ideas out for a walk in the world and see how it goes.

It’s not that a kid would see this one question and be instantly inspired to devote her life to a fulfilling career in juice box design. But I bet that the cumulative effect is to make the point that a good education gives you the tools to solve problems and effectively communicate ideas rather than to memorize a bunch of the right facts.

*I can get away with this generalization because being Justin Bieber is not interesting.

Unfortunately Success is the Product of Learned Behaviors, Not Magic
December 14, 2010, 10:50 am
Filed under: Creating Green Behavior Change
Join this group immediately.

If you would like a halo of billions and billions of dollars join this group.

If you’ve got to go listen to one of those dreadful inspirational talks that crop up in every profession, you might as well pick the guy who decided at the tender age of 13 that he wanted to be a professional speechwriter when he grew up.  Suneel Gupta, VP of Product Development at Groupon, totally killed at a recent ChiPMA meetup with a great talk about the practical side of being a successful entrepreneur. My take on his talk is that entrepreneurship is a set of learned behaviors and attitudes – it just looks like magic in the halo of billions and billions of dollars.

Gupta’s origin story is pretty grand. It seems that one of his teachers showed the class a gripping speech by JFK. Then she showed them a picture of the guy who actually wrote the speech, which blew his mind and instantly inspired him to be that guy instead. Gupta called his mom and told her that he wanted to be a speechwriter when he grew up, and in an act of totally clutch parenting she told him that he had everything he needed to start that day. So he did. And here’s the cool part: he started biking to local politician’s offices and offering them his speeches. None of them actually used them, but eventually Bart Stupak recommended that weird kid with the ideas to Rahm Emanuel and he was on his way with his first speechwriting job.

This is a great story – it’s funny and it illustrates at least three behaviors and one truth that anyone can learn:

Three behaviors to cultivate for entrepreneurial success.

1. Ignore fake barriers. Did being 13 stop Gupta from becoming a speechwriter? Did being 12 keep Peter Wiggin from becoming Hegemon? No. No it did not. And it’s not just age – people talk themselves out of doing things because they don’t have the right degree or the right connections or a perfectly uncluttered block of time. The best way to jolt out of this rut is to…

2. Do something. This was one of Gupta’s main points and he’s got the embarrassing stories of being turned down by politician after politician to back it up. I bet those first speeches were absolutely dreadful. But they were necessary because everyone has to start someplace – no one ever in the history of time has created perfection on the first try. Which means that you have to…

3. Get the hang of fucking up. As a perfectionist I think this is the hard part. I’m working on convincing myself that it’s like learning how to fall in martial arts: it’s the first thing you learn and one of the most important because if you can’t do it right then even if you become the best eventually you’ll get hurt really, really badly. The trick is to learn from your failures and apply the learning to the next iteration instead of collapsing into a miserable wet heap of self-loathing. That’s right folks – you learned it here first!

And here’s the one big truth: Everyone – even Rahm Emanuel – wants to work with people who care enough about the work that they are willing to ignore fake barriers, do something, and get the hang of fucking up. You can teach skills but you can’t teach attitude.

Catch A Free Screening of Carbon Nation; Resolve To Go To Bars More
August 3, 2010, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Event

The World's First Non-Depressing Climate Change Documentary!

It’s been a tough summer, no? Between the oil disaster in the gulf and various heat waves, floods and outbreaks of Dengue fever in Florida there’s hardly been enough time to even properly lament the collapse of the energy bill.

I’d say we could all use a pick me up, so mark your calendars for the August 10th free evening showing of Carbon Nation, the only documentary addressing climate change that actually has a happy ending! That’s because it’s about solutions farmers, soldiers, architects and other folks are undertaking right now to move to a low carbon economy. The key takeaway: you don’t have to believe in climate change to reap the benefits of applying innovative and pragmatic thinking to reducing carbon.  I particularly like the tag line: “A climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change.”

Here’s how you know this will be a good movie: if you ask Karen Weigert, one of the producers, where the idea came from she’ll start the story with “I was snowboarding at Sundance a few years ago and we got into this conversation at the bar…” I find this extremely inspiring – I’ll have to start going to bars more.

So next Tuesday mix up a batch of hurricanes and mosey on down to Millennium Park at 7 for the celebrities (Van Jones! Hal Sparks!) and 8 for the show.

Climate Change at the Field Museum: The Good, the Bad and the Corporate.
July 2, 2010, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Event

I fail to resist the plastic injection model making machine.

I scored an invitation to the launch of the Field Museum’s brand new exhibit: Climate Change. A panel of CSR VPs, organic wine, a sneak peak of the exhibit AND a chance to see Sue? Sold!

After the VP panel (which was brilliantly moderated by Suzanne Malec-McKenna, Chicago’s Commissioner of the Environment), we were released into the main hall for drinks, dinner and a tour through the exhibit. Here’s my quick take on the Good, the Bad and the Corporate of the Climate Change exhibit.

The Good

I only pushed the button once, I swear.

“Take Action” Walls. My favorite part was the interactive walls listing different actions people can take to reduce their personal carbon footprint. Added bonus: visitors can push a button to add themselves to the running tally of people taking action. Scientific? Well no – anyone who’s seen kids in a museum knows that they’ll push any button they can find over and over and over until the teacher drags them away. But research shows that people are more likely to change their behavior when they get social cues showing them that other people are doing it too. My only quibble is that I would have put this at the end of the exhibit instead of the beginning.

Being the poster victim for climate change is not as rewarding as I had hoped.

Doing something interesting with the inevitable polar bear. Let’s face it: you can’t have a climate change exhibit without trotting out a polar bear to put a fuzzy and adorable face to the problem. Kudos to the Field Museum, which presents their polar bear striding across the trash heap which is his primary source of food now that his ice pack hunting grounds are dwindling.  It’s a good punch in the gut visual that nicely underscores the problem of habitat disruption.

The Bad.

Text! The polar bear stands out because it is one of the very few things to look at in the whole hall. I’d say about 80% of the exhibit consists of the written word, which is kind of a shame. How cool would it have been to have set up a game like WWF’s CEO2 to give visitors the opportunity to really engage with the kind of issues businesses face when it comes to reducing carbon? Museums offer one of the few spaces that allow people to engage with ideas instead of just reading about them, and I wish this exhibit had taken more advantage of that chance.

Carbon Capture will ride to our rescue on a unicorn.

The Corporate.

Wouldn’t it be nice? The exhibit closes with the traditional upbeat solutions round-up and this is where you start seeing the corporate speak take center stage. The segment on Carbon Capture and Storage is particularly grim: in all the cheerleading about how functional and practical CCS could be there is no mention that the technology doesn’t exist now and won’t until 2030 at the very, very earliest. And that’s assuming that $20 billion or so gets invested in companies like Exxon-Mobil between now and then. The whole CCS piece reads a lot like talking points from the coal industry group America’s Power site.  I have no idea why the Field Museum made this choice and I wish they hadn’t.

There is definitely some good stuff in this exhibit, but if you want to get excited about strong solutions for climate change I recommend marking your calendar for the August 10th screening of Carbon Nation at Millennium Park. This new documentary promises to be an interesting, a-political and hopeful survey of technologies that actually exist to combat climate change.

Green Job Profile #5: Communications Manager for PortionPac
June 7, 2010, 8:05 pm
Filed under: Green Job Profiles

Sometimes I’m tempted to think that all the really cool green jobs (Anaerobic Digestion Manager! Environmental Fate Modeller!) are for engineers, but then I talk with someone like Arline Welty, Communications Manager for PortionPac.

“Concentrates are where it’s at – they explode the idea of green cleaning.”

That’s Arline, telling you everything you need to know about why her company has spent 45+ profitable years smack in the intersection between innovation and sustainability. It’s nice to see the power of wordsmithing used for the good!

Now the interesting thing about Arline is that she’s spent most of her career in the social sector, and it took a company as sustainable as PortionPac to tempt her away. I sat down with her last week to get the skinny on what it’s like spinning words for a truly green company.

Organization: PortionPac, a local chemical company that has spent the last four decades on the leading edge of sustainability in cleaning products. While they have obtained Green Seal certification for every cleaner they can, their true innovation is in minimizing the energy and water footprint of their products.

Title: Communications Manager

Relevant Training: Years of writing copy.

What do you do all day? (click on the jump to find out!)

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