Brand imagery remains largely optimistic
Role of pessimism
This polarization of messaging around climate change begs the question - which approach is the right approach? That is to say, which approach can galvanise action across countries, sectors and cultures to enact the massive changes necessary to prevent catastrophe. Where pessimism can breed despondency, optimism can fuel complacency. Is optimism more suitable in some periods, and pessimism others, or is there benefit in combining the two - a ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ to quote Antoni Gramsci?
Behavioural scientific approaches are inconclusive over which messaging provokes individuals into more action. Where a 2020 study found pessimistic messaging increases emotional arousal and, as a consequence, risk perception amongst respondents on the issue of climate, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-020-00574-z , findings from 2019 suggest the opposite, that ‘constructive hope’ should form the core of crisis messaging. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00020/full
However, Focussing on the impact of optimism and pessimism amongst individuals in controlled contexts captures only one component of the broader question. Zooming out, a cultural perspective on the question yields a range of possibilities. Clearly, both impulses exist culturally at any one time, and are somewhat symbiotic. Pessimistic activists will always complain not enough is being done, prompting policymakers and brands to make sufficient change fuelled by their irrepressible optimism. It does not follow, however, that these two impulses are at all times equally balanced, nor that they should be. Sociologists including Oliver Bennett identify periods of pessimism in intellectual circles, eventually percolating into general public discourse eventually driving demands for substantial change. Change is then implemented in a following period of optimistic construction as can be seen throughout history.
Going into COP26, organizations would be wise to recognise the power of pessimism in the current moment. If pessimism and optimism wax and wane, those seeking to drive change need to assess both where culture is currently, where it is going, and whether they want to lead the charge or follow the pack. Despite the well noted impact focus of millennials, the chipper optimism of Johnson and corporates seems premature. Although the perception gap between the powerful and the people has narrowed in terms of perception of climate change, tackling it has begun to be associated with the broader challenge of inequality, and historically low confidence in capitalism. Brands in particular need to recognise a spirit of scepticism towards them. Optimistic positioning on climate change risks a lack of credibility, while pessimistic positioning risks inauthenticity in emulating the voice of activist movements.