The Blog

What Climate Change Campaigns Could (and Should) Learn From Jay-Z

If the climate change movement is ever to break through to the mainstream and persuade the masses to change their ways, it needs fewer statistics and a little bit more stardust, New York style.

New York - so good they named it twice. Everyone wants to be a part of it, right? But where does that reputation come from? What is it about the Big Apple that makes it one of the coolest cities on the planet?

In the search for answers I consulted the US Census Bureau, where I discovered that the population of New York is 8,214,426 (as of 2006), the median household income is $38,293 and 31.3% of businesses in the city are owned by women. I also looked at The Economist, where I found articles about increasing hunger and poverty in the city, as well as an under-performing and under-funded public school system.

Pretty uninspiring stuff on the whole. Of course, the real answer to my question lies in the very first sentence of this article. New York's popular perception has nothing to do with facts and figures and has everything to do with its portrayal in popular culture. From Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z, the Big Apple has long been sold as a dream factory.

The climate change movement could learn a lot from this. The public have long been bombarded with facts and figures about global warming - most notably in Al Gore's climate change movie An Inconvenient Truth - in attempt to spur them into action. But as New York demonstrates, facts and figures rarely capture the public's imagination.

Let's look at the lyrics on Jay-Z's massive hit record Empire State of Mind, on which New York is described as:

"A concrete jungle where dreams are made,

There's nothing you can't do now you're in New York,

These streets will make you feel brand new,

Big lights will inspire you."

Powerful stuff. And yet it doesn't contain a single verifiable fact or figure. Contrast this with Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, during which the former US Vice President uses a series of graphs and pie charts about melting ice caps and rising temperatures to paint an apocalyptic vision of the earth's future.

If you're the type of person who reads The Economist, Gore's Powerpoint presentation was probably right up your street. You may even have made a conscious decision to do something about climate change as a result of seeing the film. The problem is that most people don't read The Economist. Most people watch the X Factor, and read Heat magazine, and worry about whether they'll be able to fit into their bikini on their next holiday.

Market segmentation experts Cultural Dynamics call these people 'Outer Directed'. They're motivated by money, success, looking good and getting approval from others. They also find science scary and don't like being told what to do. For this reason, pretty much every attempt the climate change movement has made to engage them has failed. Since Gore's film came out in 2006, belief in climate change has actually declined according to this survey.

These 'Outer Directed' people need to be inspired to do things, and that includes taking on action on climate change. Jay-Z's song is a great example of how inspirational language and tone of voice can make something incredibly appealing and attractive. Gore's approach is the exact opposite and only serves to make the whole issue frightening, unattractive and boring.

There is a time and a place for scientific debate about climate change, and for serious initiatives led by both government and big business to help tackle it, just as there is an important role for the type of journalism produced by The Economist, and the kind of data produced by the US Census Bureau. But if the climate change movement is ever to break through to the mainstream and persuade the masses to change their ways, it needs fewer statistics and a little bit more stardust, New York style.

You Tube link to Jay-Z video:

You Tube link to An Inconvenient Truth trailer: