Friday, 6 November 2009

Act on CO2, Public Opinion and the 'Bed Time Story' Video

Reframing Climate Change - ASA complaints and YouTube comments

As part of its £6 million 'Act on CO2' climate change public information campaign the UK government, in early October, released a video which aimed to raise the level of public awareness about the seriousness of climate change and to promote lifestyle change.

The video features a father reading a bedtime story about climate change to his young daughter from a story book which has cartoon style images.

The 'Bed Time Story' video has generated 700 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which has banned it from being screened before 9pm and is launching a full investigation into the complaints. The derisive comments from the audience who viewed the video on YouTube also testify to its negative impact.

UK public sceptical about climate change

Online research* conducted for the UK government just prior to the 'Bed Time Story' video release showed that over half of the people questioned believed that climate change would not affect them, and that only one in five people (18%) thought that climate change would show effects during their children’s lifetime.

The UK public is among the most sceptical about climate change in Europe. An Ipsos Mori poll (2008) showed that 60% doubt there is scientific consensus about the causes of climate change, and in the 2009 Eurobarometer survey only 47% of UK citizens ranked climate change as the world's most serious problem, placing the UK 19th out of 27 EU nations in this respect.

* YOUGOV 1039 GB adults; data weighted to be representative of the GB population; fieldwork 6th to 7th October 2009

Reframing climate change

The problem for the UK government is how to get the public to think about climate change in such a way that they see government policies as providing solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Current policies do not appear either to evoke positive public response or willingness to modify lifestyles.

According to Nisbet messages about climate change need to be framed - 'tailored to a specific medium and audience, using carefully researched metaphors, allusions, and examples that trigger a new way of thinking about the personal relevance of climate change'.

In communicating issues to the public frames are used to organize central ideas, to help convey why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done. These need to link with the internalised personal frames of the audience.

To make sense of complex issues people use mental short cuts which rely on personal frames - small sets of internalised concepts and values - into which new information can be fitted.

The Act on CO2 campaign 'Bed Time Story' video is an attempt to reframe climate change issues for the public.

Energy and Climate Change Minister, Joan Ruddock is quoted as saying that "The ad is directed at adults, but we know that the proposition to 'protect the next generation' is a motivating one"

The 'protecting children' frame for climate change

The UK government 'Act on CO2' video places climate change in a new 'protecting children' frame which aims to change public perspectives of the issue. The frame, which resonates with the British public in other domains such as child abuse, delivers a message about climate change through a 'Bed Time Story'.

The following reactions are those of the author

The 'Bed Time Story' video images set the scene as a warm safe bedtime story - a strong, personal, emotive, child protective frame. But when the message in the story turns out to be frightening to children (not warm and relaxing as expected) it provokes an instant emotional response to protect children from the scary story.

The personal 'protecting children' frame seems to overwhelm the climate change message in the video which is hardly registered at all.

The message taken from the video is that the story is inappropriately scary for children in the context of bedtime (leading to the ASA banning it on early evening TV). The climate change message is lost.

A further reaction is that the video is just propaganda, and as such the climate change message is dismissed.

Public response - ASA complaints, YouTube comments and climate change denial

A full unbiased picture of public response to the video would require careful surveys using sound statistical techniques and psychologists' analysis; such studies are not yet available. However two sources showing public reaction to the 'Bed Time Story' video are accessible - the complaints listed by the ASA and comments from those who viewed the video on YouTube. These provide a flavour of public response.

The complaints to the ASA about the 'Bed Time Story' video (700 are under formal investigation at time of writing) were of three types relating to

- unsuitability for children

- misleading content

- political advert which should not be shown

The comments on YouTube about the 'Bed Time Story' video reflected similar concerns, but many saw the video as government propaganda trying to scare people into action on climate change. The tenor of most of the YouTube comments (239 at time of writing) was very negative.

Consideration of responses from both sources in the three categories leads to the following:-

-In relation unsuitability for children

The government say that the video is designed for adults so it is not surprising that the 'theme and content of the ad could be distressing for children' and that it was inappropriate screened at times when children might be watching.

-In relation to political propaganda

Two of the more polite YouTube comments -

'What a shameful piece of emotive propaganda. Just who are they trying to kid?'

'This video is propaganda at its worst -use of children, use of grossly incorrect science information and use of tax payers' money on top of it all.'

-In relation to misleading content

There were complaints to the ASA about representation of CO2 as a dark cloud, the % CO2 from everyday things and assertions about impacts of global warming.

Of greater concern is that in both areas of public response there was a thread of climate change denial. Some people feel that climate change is not scientifically proven.

Complaints to the ASA '....misleading because it presents human induced climate change as a fact, when there is division amongst the scientific community on that point'.

Two more Comments from YouTube viewers -

'Based on very dubious pseudo-science. There is no proof that either the earth
is warming or that CO2 is a problem'.

'Propaganda. There is still no absolute proof of man-made GW.
Man-made GW is a belief, not a fact'

Why didn't the climate change message get across?

It seems that the Act on CO2 campaign got the framing of the video seriously wrong. The 'Bed Time Story' about climate change generated a significant volume of complaints and controversy. Quite an achievement for the Blair-Brown government which was considered to be a master of spin!

This episode is an object lesson on how difficult it is to convey the issues surrounding the dangers of climate change effectively to the public. The framing appears deficient in a number of ways

- The personal internal 'protecting children' frame engendered by the visual context seems to overwhelm the climate change message which is barely conveyed at all.

- The presentation did not communicate optimism that there are solutions to climate change, indeed the 'Bed Time Story' ends on a negative note with the phrase

'.... if they (the adults) made less CO2, maybe they could save the land for the children'.

BUT HOW? No practical solutions or steps are suggested

The video concludes with a voice over

'...It’s up to us how the story ends. See what you can do...'

BUT People are not told explicitly how they can help, just pointed to the 'Act on CO2' website
to 'Change how the story ends'

- The responsibility for causing climate change is placed on 'the grownups'. CO2 emissions appear to be a problem for individuals to solve, not for collective cooperative action or government policy (hints at dire consequences - flooding, drought if individuals do not act).

- A significant number of the intended audience doubt climate change science.
The context of the video appears to be badly framed for them as they perceive the message (and internalise it) as scary climate change propaganda.

Negative Impact?

From the limited evidence available the impact of the Act on CO2 'Bed Time Story' video on influencing public opinion on climate change seems to be substantially negative. It has generated a significant number of complaints to the ASA and mostly negative comments from YouTube viewers

The framing of the video does not seem likely to be effective in increasing the understanding of a sceptical public about the serious threats from climate change, nor to motivate them to become involved in mitigation actions.