How Stripping Supermodels Promote Climate Action

This video was released as part of Bill McKibben’s global awareness-building exercise last week for 350.org, an organization promoting the idea that carbon emission levels above 350 parts per million are dangerous:

I’d like to treat this as a case study in visual metaphors and conceptual frames to show how insights into human cognition are vital for effective climate action.

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This video contains several innovative elements that are worthy of note. I’ll consider each in turn.

Visual Metaphors

Human thought is profoundly metaphorical. Our most basic concepts are grounded in the bodily experience and “abstracted” through metaphorical extensions. We understand knowledge through several bodily activities such as grasping (I get what you’re saying), seeing (That explanation is a bit murky), eating (I find that hard to swallow) and physical forces (Relativity theory just about blew my mind).

These metaphors are all conceptual. They are found in every human language. They are also involved in spatial and auditory reasoning. This video makes use of visual metaphors that are designed to make profound points through the experience of watching it. Here are a few of them I noticed:

Emotional (sexual) energy is physical heat.

A layer of clothing is one unit of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The “natural state” of nudity is the “natural state” of our global climate system (undisturbed by global warming).

Each of these metaphors is activated through gesturing and movement. Thus it is expressed visually in the video. It becomes active in our language when we “put words” to them and articulate our understanding of these ideas.

Making Climate Action Sexy

A major theme of this video is that solving the climate crisis is a natural compulsion (another metaphor!) just like having a sex drive is an innate quality for human beings. It playfully asserts that engagement with the challenges we face in dealing with climate can be pleasurable and fun.

What’s more, the final moments of the video set up the pressure to “finish the job” and get those last two parts per million out of the way. A clear and powerful objective has been set up (for those who find supermodels sexy) to get down to “bare essentials” where these people most like to be.

Deconstructing the Fashion Industry

Each layer of clothing fits within the supermodel frame, meaning that the style of garments represent the glamor and extravagance of the fashion industry. As the models remove each article of clothing, they are promoting the idea that all these layers are not only unnecessary, but they are bad for us.

This puts the fashion industry in a precarious position. If all those layers of extravagance (metaphorically implied as causing the heating problem) are harmful AND unnecessary, we can and should return to simpler forms of pleasure (like sexual interaction with those who appeal to us and, by extension, other kinds of simple pleasures) that do not contribute to the disruption of global climate.

An Image Schema That Leaves (Some of) Us Wanting More

Another key insight about human cognition is that we have body-based concepts for using our bodies in the world. These include core capacities to maintain balance, move along a trajectory, recognize containers, and so on. Each of these capacities requires what are called “image schemas” or schematic concepts for acting out our plans in the world. Two key image schemas in this video are the BALANCE SCHEMA and the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL SCHEMA.

The BALANCE SCHEMA arises when we feel drawn toward or away from a physical object. The metaphor sex appeal is physical attraction makes this evident. We are “pulled” toward the things that attract us and remain “unbalanced” until we either resist the pull or make contact with the source of attraction.

The SOURCE-PATH-GOAL SCHEMA is set up throughout the entire video. As the models reveal that their intention is to remove articles of clothing in a continuing sequence, a trajectory appears in our understanding of what is going on that “leads to” the culminating point where the model is naked.

Those of us who find this end state desirable are left “unbalanced” at the end of the video. These people feel a compulsion to act. This forms the motivational drive to reduce carbon emissions. If, according to the metaphors involved, the only way to achieve the natural state of nakedness is to reduce carbon dioxide levels back to their undisturbed state, this compulsion will remain active and unbalanced until sufficient climate action has been achieved.

Being Evocative Through Controversy

Some readers will find this video offensive. There is plenty of controversy around the objectification of women, idolization of celebrities (including supermodels), and the use of sex to “sell” climate change.

I see these controversies as very effective from a marketing perspective. The two motivating tendencies for sharing this video – and it is clearly going viral at the moment with over 109,000 views at the time of this writing – are (1) people who felt good about the video and wanted to share and (2) people who were appalled at the video and felt the need to complain about it. Both of these tendencies are driving the viral spread of the video.

Closing Comment – Understand Your Political Mind

Every part of this analysis shows that human cognition has many central roles in the spread of ideas. It is vital that social change advocates of all stripes learn more about the workings of our minds and the political/cultural ramifications of this knowledge.

Update 1: I clarified the metaphor “emotional energy is physical heat” with “sexual” in parentheses to suggest that some viewers would read sexual connotations into it while others simply see it as a general emotional warming as the women go from feeling physically cold to being exuberant and energetic at the end.

Update 2: There’s a lively discussion of this article on my other blog that you might like to check out too!

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Joe Brewer is a cognitive scientist turned social change strategist who consults with advocacy organizations of all kinds to bring us closer to a sustainable world. Reach him here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Author: Joe Brewer

Joe Brewer is Founder and Director of Cognitive Policy Works. He is a social change strategist and facilitator of idea implementation for people seeking to innovate at the intersection of the advocacy, policy, and technology worlds. Throughout the last decade Joe has sought to understand human values and behavior through the study of cognitive semantics and complex systems with the goal of helping build livable communities for the 21st Century. Much of his work has focused on values, identity, and modes of thought that shape cultural understandings of political and social issues.

Joe is interested in developing new practices that empower people to manage large-scale social change while solving problems through collaboration. He would like to see greater levels of trust and cooperation arise through a culture of sharing that enhances life satisfaction and well-being for people everywhere. Joe is dedicated to making Cognitive Policy Works into a world-class educational center and consulting firm that trains people to manage the change process through the application of strategic planning tools and insights into the political, cultural, and psychological aspects of social change.

He contributes to the Strategies for Change project of WWF-UK as a principal researcher at IdentityCampaigning.org. A collection of Joe’s writings can be found here.

14 thoughts on “How Stripping Supermodels Promote Climate Action”

  1. I read through the comments at your other blog and found I had a far different reaction. Simply put, I saw an unoriginal riff of the PETA ads.

    Sure, it grabs the attention (will they get naked?) But that’s been done, one way or another, many times before.

    Moreover, it’s a serious issue being trated in an unserious way, which could lead people, like me, to wonder whether to take the messenger seriously.

    Perhaps it does reach to some deep-seated frame in people’s minds. But I wonder how many will dismiss it before it has a chance to get there.

    I give it a 3, but it does have a beat you can dance to.

  2. I see this ad succeeding where many others have failed. It went viral and has been viewed more than half a million times in one week. I’m still waiting for a similar level of exposure for media produced by environmental organizations… especially considering that this ad was produced by a 20 year old girl and her friends.

    As for the bit about seriousness, all-too-often serious equates to dull “only the facts” messages that don’t engage people and are immanently forgettable.

    If we want to reach young people, we’re going to have to speak their language. For the most part this will involve young people speaking to other young people.

    There are many reasons why I find this ad evocative and worthy of study. And my point remains that this piece of art is a worthwhile case study for understanding how our minds work and why things go viral.

  3. Joe, are you by chance an academic?

    I ask, because your discussion of this video is a lot like the two academics who, in an installment of Northern Exposure, examine, debate, deconstruct, dis-member, intellectualize about and eventually get into a fist fight about the true meaning of “Casey At The Bat.”

    Jeeze. Sex sells. That’s all there is to it.

  4. Hey Doran,

    I’ve been known for having my nose buried in a book from time to time. You’ve got me there.

    :-)

    Unfortunately, a lot of progressives have misconceptions about how people think and behave so I end up having to break things down like this so they’ll see the error of their ways.

    Sex may sell, but strategic thinking has been really hard to push off the shelves for a while now.

  5. Mr. Brewer:

    A large number of viewings doesn’t necessarily mean the spot got across a pro-environment message. It may just mean a bunch of 14-year-old boys got to watch models strip down. Do you have empirical data to prove otherwise?

    Moreover, serious is not necessarily dull. Re-view LBJ’s “Daisy” spot or Reagan’s “Bear In the Woods.” Serious subjects with serious — and very persuasive — messages.

  6. I have not done empirical studies of the reactions people have while watching this video. That wasn’t the focus of my analysis. The methods I used were based on the tools of cognitive linguistics, not social science.

    Also, I’m not saying that this video will have a sweeping impact that transforms how the public at large thinks about climate either. This is a simple case study in human conceptualization. The conceptual metaphors, image schemas, and semantic frames I highlight are part of the meaning making process. They function outside conscious awareness and make it possible to understand the video while watching it.

    The long-term behavioral changes that come with exposure to media are influenced by these cognitive operations, albeit in non-linear and emergent ways with many other influencing factors that confound efforts to find a simple “A caused B” relationship. Yet, they are still part of the process.

    I never claimed that this video would lead to serious behavioral change, yet criticisms of my analysis are often directed at this. Let me be absolutely clear here:

    This analysis is meant to show that hidden mental processes are very important in politics and can be uncovered through methodologies from the cognitive sciences.

    In other words, the role of cognition in politics is very important. That’s my point and I’m sticking to it.

  7. Glenn,

    What if I want to increase my carbon libido footprint?

    😉

    Seriously, the fun of this video is that you can play around with these concepts and make just this kind of joke. The ideas are simple, intuitive, and (probably) interesting to people who don’t normally talk about cap-and-trade or the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    That’s my hope anyway.

  8. I also like the metaphor (pointed out in my blog’s discussion thread by Glacier) that the earth is a woman’s body.

    I feel something visceral when I think about the empowerment of women to claim their physical selves as a basis for environmental activism, which this video promotes through young women shedding cultural layers to be in their “natural state” – whether this means naked or, more profoundly, their true selves when they strip off the layers of materialism.

    There’s a lot of material to work with there.

  9. Thank you for your kind and informative reply to your other post of the same content.

    If I understand correctly, what you wrote indicated that with time and increasing volatility of the climate system, we don’t actually know with any degree of certainty whether supermodels will take their clothes off or put them back on in the advent of crisis-point?

    We have entered unchartered waters indeed!

    May I ask then, (1) do you believe there is a ‘natural state of nakedness’ in the global climate system? and (2) Is it possible to reduce and maintain carbon dioxide levels at their ‘undisturbed state’?

    Apologies if you have blog posts that answer these questions that I have yet to visit. I do look forward to be pointed towards any answers you may have to these questions.

  10. Hi Paul,

    In a very practical sense, it is probably not important whether there is a natural state for climate or not. I say this because – from the perspective of taking effective action – we only need ways of conceptualizing the disruption of the climate system (which would implicate an undisrupted prior state) in order to adjust our contribution to the trajectory the climate system is taking.

    We need this concept because it makes abundantly clear the truth of our role in contributing to the harms of climate volatility in the coming decades. Without understanding our role, we cannot take effective action to alter the consequences of our collective behaviors.

    The second question is the real crux of efforts to address climate change. An unfortunate logical entailment of the disruption frame is that it allows for the possibility that this pre-disruption state can be returned to in the abstract. I don’t believe this to be the case, in the strict literal sense, because the climate of the future will be different from the climate of the past. We are, after all, dealing with a highly non-linear and chaotic system.

    That said, there are key and vital features of the prior climate system that we must strive to return to. One of these is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. I do believe there are ways to reduce the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere… and even go so far as to reduce the concentrations lower than they are now.

    The challenge is doing so.

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