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Laughter, Comedy and Environmental Activism

By Chris Palmer
Distinguished Film Producer in Residence
Director, Center for Environmental Filmmaking
School of Communication, American University; (202) 885-3408

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

As some of you know, I dabble in stand-up comedy as well as environmental filmmaking. Making people laugh and getting key conservation messages out to the public are two of my missions in life. Unfortunately, these two areas do not overlap as often as they could.

This evening I’m going to argue that we environmentalists have failed to take advantage of one of the most powerful tools available to us: humor. Making viewers laugh is a powerful way to grab their attention and hold on to it long enough to get an important message across.

I will demonstrate how commercial product advertisers have used humor to their advantage, and show some attempts that environmentalists have made. I will then discuss some problems that we environmentalists face when attempting to create humorous messages, and I will offer some suggestions and goals for moving forward. Finally we’ll end the evening by screening the runners-up and winner of the Eco-Comedy Video Competition. (Recognize Brent Blackwelder, Jan Canterbury, Fred Grossberg, Casey Roe and Jeremy Polk.)

Humor in Advertising

More than $150 billion is spent on advertising in national media on an annual basis, with between 10% and 30% of that amount going for the placement of ads that are intended to be humorous. Other estimates show that as much as a quarter or more of prime time television advertising in the U.S. is intended to be humorous.

Humor has a special power to grab people’s attention and make them remember a particular product. While watching television, surfing the web and driving around, people are continually bombarded with advertising and messages. When something makes them laugh, people pay attention, and with the continual stream of advertisements and messaging in modern life, getting people to pay attention can be the biggest challenge.

Mark Levit, a professor of marketing at New York University, writes that many of the most memorable ad campaigns are funny because “People will pay more attention to a humorous commercial than a factual or serious one, opening themselves up to be influenced.”

I’m going to show some clips of humorous advertisements. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with them, because we tend to remember funny ads.

Does anyone here remember the Geico caveman commercials? In this ad, a surprisingly well-spoken, well-dressed, and hairy modern caveman takes offense at Geico’s ads that claim their website is “So easy, a caveman could do it!” Geico created a series of these ads that built up this funny character, continually releasing new ads that kept him interesting and entertaining, helping to build up Geico’s brand recognition. Geico must have a good marketing department—they also created the famous Geico gecko.
Cavemen Geico Commercials

Another commercial that makes me smile is the E-Trade talking baby. This 2008 Superbowl commercial features an adorable baby blabbering with a well-done voiceover of a grown man pretending to be the baby.
E-trade Baby 1

Another humorous commercial series is “Messin’ with Sasquatch,” advertising beef jerky. Who doesn’t love an underdog monster, Sasquatch, who gets his revenge on obnoxious humans?
Warm water

And here is a collection of a few more funny ads for your enjoyment.
Four more funny ads

Clearly, advertisers know that humor is a powerful tool to promote their products. So why haven’t conservationists discovered this same tool? Before looking at some attempts that have been made by conservationists, let me show you this video.

The Front Fell Off  (2 min)

As much as I enjoy watching Australian comedians John Clarke and Bryan Dawe, who do funny mock interviews on current event issues, it’s not their job to promote conservation. Though it is wonderful to see comedians focusing their attention important environmental issues, we must recognize that there are entire organizations devoted to this cause. Let’s look at some environmental organizations that have attempted to use humor in their messages.

Some Attempts at Humor by Environmentalists

This ad by the Green Fund Altshuler Shaham is moderately funny.
“Stop deforestation” (1 min)

Ouch! I guess for some reason seeing men getting their chest hair ripped out is funny—and reminds people of deforestation.  This one by Conservation International features Harrison Ford.
Harrison Ford (30 sec)

Here’s a short animated film that observes global warming from the point of view of naïve, anthropomorphic polar bears. It is by the UK group Friends of the Earth.
“Polar Bears”  (1 min)

Here’s another one from Friends of the Earth—though this one’s a bit edgier.
“Stripper Plane”  (30 sec)

This next one is the winner of a contest put on by the Alliance for Climate Protection founded by Al Gore. Personally, I don’t think this is very funny. But maybe it gets the point across better than a scientist simply talking to the camera? What do you think?
“Raining Elephants” (1 min)

Here’s a cute song about Exxon scientists put out by the Exxpose Exxon campaign, a coalition of groups including Greenpeace and NRDC.
“Expose-Exxon”  (about 1 min)
I showed this to my teaching assistant, Jeremy Polk, who has conducted his own research on the role of humor in advertising, and he commented, “I guess this appeals to some people, but personally I find it annoying. I think that the song’s cutesy, childish tone underestimates the viewer’s intelligence, and I think that the ad is too negative in its portrayal of Exxon’s scientists. It really turns me off to the message these organizations are trying to communicate.”

This next one may not be the most mature humor, but it may get people smiling. It’s produced by Animal Planet TV.
Gassy Cows  (30 sec)

Here is a satirical piece by the “Coal is Dirty” campaign.
Coal is Clean (2 min)

I showed this video to Jeremy as well, and he commented, “The ad turns me away from the campaign and I don’t find it funny. The message’s creators have made no attempt to address shortcomings of the real science behind clean coal, and they ask the viewer to figure out who their target is rather than making a clear indication. I understand the idea is to demonstrate the absurdity of research that claims coal can be a clean-burning fuel. However, I fear that some viewers may associate the use of ridiculous words like “cleanscopic,” “kagillions,” and “desootification” with this ad itself, rather than with its target. The ad may weaken itself and not its mark.”

Why Haven’t We Used Humor More?

These short films and advertisements are great, but they were just about all I could find. Why aren’t we doing more to incorporate humor into our conservation messages?

As a stand-up comedian, I can tell you one big reason: it’s hard! It’s easy to fall flat on your face ignominiously and be unintentionally unfunny. I’ve bombed in front of audiences many times.

Another problem is that we take ourselves too seriously. With the daunting issues we are facing, we tend to forget that humor actually complements serious issues, rather than detracts from them. After all, humor is just tragedy plus time. Let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we forget to laugh. It’s OK to give insight into serious issues through comedy.

A third issue is that humor has the potential to offend. I know this because a good percentage of my stand-up act consists of jokes about my wife—until she reads my script and makes me take them out! Humor is funny because it crosses lines that could potentially be controversial.

For example, take a look at this video produced by Friends of Animals.
“The Big Ask” [Don’t show if there are kids!]

Certainly, we don’t need to go this far in our humor all the time, but I do think it grabs people’s attention and gets the point across. It’s easy to cross the line, as I think the New Yorker did last summer when it carried a cover illustration showing Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim, fist-bumping his gun-toting wife.

Another reason we may be hesitant to use humor is that getting people’s attention is not our only goal. We want to grab people’s attention and get them to understand the conservation message behind the film. We want to make sure they understand the issue and what they can do to help.

According to some research [Levit], funny advertising increases brand recognition, but does not necessarily increase product recall, message credibility, or purchases. Other research shows that humor enhances the liking of the source (Weingerger and Gulas, p.44), and some has even found evidence to suggest that humor alone has no direct affect on attitude change.

Still more research speaks to the importance of using videos in conjunction with print media articles to reinforce messages and enhance learning that may lead to attitude change. In terms of conservation, this means that we can use humor as a way to get people to remember our names and our missions, but humor alone will not change behavior. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it—it just means we need to use it well as part of a broader message.

The Way Forward

We’ve seen some great examples of using humor in environmental films, but we have so much further to go. Here are my three suggestions:

1.    Environmentalists must use humor far more often – just like advertisers. This requires us to be creative, resourceful and innovative. If we have trouble creating humor ourselves, then perhaps we should enlist the help of professional comedians. Just as it is not the job of John Clarke and Bryan Dawe to look out for the environment, we may find that it is not always our job to be funny. We must continue to use the traditional tools of lobbying, research and education, but when a person laughs, they become more open to new viewpoints and behaving differently.

2.    We must use humor well. It should actually be funny and not offensive. Communication schools like SOC should offer more classes in humor as a communication tool. What is the role of humor in crafting effective messages that produce real results? What is the relationship between humor and learning? Why does laughing open a person up to new ideas that they might otherwise reject?

I can offer an answer to the last question alone: Humor increases likeability of the message source, and it serves as a distracter. When people concentrate on the humorous aspects of a persuasive message, they ignore the argument’s shortcomings. When someone devotes his or her cognitive resources to (consciously or unconsciously) figuring out why an ad is funny, he or she is left with fewer available resources to counterargue the overall message [footnote 5].

This is very interesting, and it has bearing on how we construct our messages, but it only answers one of the questions that I have posed. Universities need to do more research in the area of humor and persuasion.

3.    We must use humor combined with strong conservation messages. Humor alone just gets people’s attention, but we are trying to encourage them to take action. How does one go beyond laughing to tangible results? For example, getting people to vote a certain way, volunteer for grassroots environmental groups, or make a donation to a conservation cause. Humorous videos must lead an audience to other forms of media (for example, environmentalist websites) where they can find more substantial articles about the issues and become more involved.

Q & As with the audience.

I’m proud to announce tonight the winner of the Eco-Comedy Video Competition, which was sponsored by the Center for Environmental Filmmaking, Friends of the Earth, Mill Reef Productions, and EcoSense. Show the runners-up and winner. The winner receives a $1,000 prize from Friends of the Earth. Bring up Brent Blackwelder to the stage.

Tonight’s winners have effectively used humor to address different environmental issues. They have helped us takes steps in the right direction. Now let’s all give them a round of applause as we remember the importance of using humor in our own attempts to promote environmental activism.

Thank you.

Carbon footprints
(Eco-Bunnies) (1 min 30 sec)

The Meatrix 2.5 (2:40)

“PVC animation”  (3 min 30 sec)

This Brazilian commercial has a cheery song celebrating “money,” while showing it’s destructive effects. It’s a light-hearted look at a serious issue.
Brazilian commercial, “Don’t Chop That Tree”   (1 min)

E-trade Baby 2

Cold one

(Climate Change) (2 min 20 sec)

“Grocery store wars” (6 min)

“Jack Black on Stop Global Warming” (2 min 30 sec)

Jon Stewart, the “fake news” anchor of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, continually shows us just how funny it can be to poke fun.

“Burning Sensation” (3 min)
“Dan-imal Planet: Polar Bears” (3 min 50 sec)
“Man on Emission” (3 min 50 sec)
“Be Patient, This Gets Amazing” (3 min 30 sec)
“Some Like It Hot” (2 min)

Of course, Jon Stewart is not necessarily out to promote conservation, but rather to run a funny news show, which he does successfully. Sometimes, as in this next video, at the expense of us environmental filmmakers!
“Our Dead Planet” (5 min)

The Colbert Report, the popular satire of a conservative news show hosted by Stephen Colbert, also touches some environmental issues with humor.
“The Word: Priceless” (4 min)
(“Aqua Colbert”) (2 min 30 sec)
(Fictional Prescott Oil)  (3 min 30 sec)

EFF Speech on Humor and Env Activism March 2009

Cris is great

McKinley Building cornerstone laying (May 14, 1902)