The following guest post was written by Keith Gaby, communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s national climate campaign. This was originally posted on Climate 411.


Who is right when a national environmental group holds a video competition and the public and the “experts” disagree on who should win?

At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the jury of film experts chose Forty Shades of Blue as the best dramatic film. The Audience Award went to Hustle & Flow. I don’t know which was a better film, but I do know Hustle & Flow went on to earn $20 million in wide release in the U.S., while Forty Shades of Blue topped out at $75,000. I’m sure it doesn’t always happen that way, but it goes to show that the experts don’t always know what will succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

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We at Environmental Defense Fund just finished something a bit like a film festival — a competition that challenged participants to make a 30-second ad that explains how capping greenhouse gas pollution will help cure our national addition to oil. This week we announced two winners, one selected by our staff and another chosen by thousands of voters online. Like at Sundance, the voters and the judges chose different winners … in fact, the video chosen by us “experts” came in dead last in the online voting.

I thought it might be interesting to explain our decision and see what others think.

To begin with, I’ll admit we have no idea if we’re right. We got about 100 entries to the contest, many of them very high-quality. We chose five finalists for the online competition and any one of them was worthy of winning. Our criteria had less to do with expert filmmaking than picking the video that most vividly and memorably explained a somewhat complex message. (The competition, as you might guess, was conceived when gas was $4 a gallon. But don’t kid yourself, worldwide demand will return with the economic recovery and $4 will seem like a bargain before too long.)

We’ve been trying to create clear messages on this topic for a while, with varying degrees of success. But we have learned some things along the way. The most important lesson, perhaps, is this one: Despite the millions of Americans who care passionately about global warming, making real progress hinges on winning over the folks who don’t have the time to focus on the details. That means our job is to first get their attention and second to transmit a simple and compelling message.

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This task is even more difficult because the only policy solution that guarantees the emissions cuts we need, a strong cap on greenhouse gases, is a regulatory process — and the public has little time to focus on that level of detail. People may care deeply about the outcomes -,- clean energy, new jobs, less pollution, less oil dependence — but it’s hard to get them to give a lot of thought to how we should achieve those ends. Try explaining that the big money and innovation for clean energy will come from spurring the private sector through a cap, and even some Congressional staff start thinking about their fantasy football lineup.

Back to the winners. Our online voters chose Thinking Cap, a great spot that clearly explains how a cap will spark innovation.


It uses simple graphics to show that the cap will spur investment in clean energy and result in less money flowing overseas for oil. And it’s got the memorable image of a “thinking cap”. Even before the results of the vote were in, A Siegel said “we have a winner” with “Thinking Cap,” impressed by its clear coverage of the full range of issues involved.

So why didn’t we pick it as our winner? Well, we chose it as a finalist because we agree it’s very well done. But there’s a difference between being clear to climate activists who are concentrating on videos they’ve chosen to watch on their computer and a spot that’s effective with Americans far less familiar with the topic. For them, it will be one of many commercials flying by on TV, only a handful of which will really capture their attention. In other words, we think “Thinking Cap” might work best for those who are already paying attention and care about this issue.

The video we chose, “Cursing Cap,” had two qualities that really stood out to us.

First, it immediately captures the attention of even the most casual viewer because it begins with a close-up of a man cursing (bleeped out, of course). Second, it employs an ingenious analogy to explain the carbon cap: the character in the ad says he made himself pay a dollar every time he cursed, in an effort to cut down. And that caused him to think up new, cleaner ways to express his frustrations — like “Walrus breath!” We think an analogy like that is a vivid and memorable way to explain a cap and might even get it stuck the minds of those we need to reach. None of that, of course, means we’re right and the online voters are wrong. “Thinking Cap,” or one of the other three excellent finalists, might be the most effective ad.

In fact, we are planning to use a mix of these spots on television to help convince the public (and their representatives in D.C.) that we need a new direction in our energy and environmental policies. Because, as President Obama said in reiterating his support for a cap, “Delay is no longer an option.”

Are you surprised by our choice? Since we’re now making decision about what ads to put on the air, I’d be interested to hear reaction to all the videos.

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