Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all that good social media stuff. It’s a huge part of how most of us live our daily lives in the 21st century. Environmental charities are just about starting to cotton-on to this fact and there have been a range of movements, campaigns and ‘virals’ aimed at pushing the environmental agenda. But do we risk losing sight of what the ultimate objective of these is?

#VoteBob

Bob: Fluffy idealist or sinister tat peddler?

#VoteBob – it’s the latest in a line of marketing exercises dreamt up by PR departments of our environmental charities. It’s about time the sector embraced the 21st century, it really is. And I do admire the sentiment, but I have definite reservations about the aims behind it.

It does not take long to figure out that Bob is no independent squirrel, working for the good of nature. Behind him he has the might of one of the largest charities in the country, the RSPB. I’ve no issue with this being an RSPB campaign, but the disingenuous way it is portrayed as some kind of grass roots movement alarms me. It smacks of a stealthy attempt at spreading its tentacles into other areas, such as with the recent ‘Giving Nature a Home’ move they have made away from mere bird fanciers to defenders of nature everywhere. Why not say straight up that Bob works for the RSPB?

Having said this, the links to the RSPB site are all over the Vote Bob website as it proudly displays itself as his biggest supporter. But I think the most telling issue I have with this campaign is the merchandise. Right there, next to the button that you can click to ‘Vote for Bob’ is the shop. Support Bob by buying a fluffy toy, T-Shirt or mug! And of course these redirect straight to the RSPB shop.

Just to get this straight, I’m completely behind the move of environmental charities into the world of online marketing and viral campaigns. I’m not a complete luddite. I’m expressing this opinion in a blog for Christ sake. But I do query the motive behind #VoteBob and some of the other recent campaigns. The aim of marketing is unquestionably to bring in more revenue and the primacy of fundraising and marketing departments within some environmental charities above the job of, y’know, actually conserving wildlife, is a pet peeve of mine, and one I’m sure I will return to soon. There is something about the #VoteBob campaign that smacks of a creative team given free reign, unhindered by the need to actually do something. And I think this is my main issue with Bob, beyond my obvious concerns that it is merely a way to drive yet more cash to RSPB. It’s a missed opportunity. Vote for Bob and vote for nature…and that’s it. Click a button, show your support. You don’t even have to actually go outside and embrace nature, support any specific measure or policy, or even understand any of the problems the environment currently faces. It is the equivalent of having a huge ‘like’ button for nature.

So what can it achieve? Bobs stated aim is that a Vote for Bob is a vote for nature. I laudable message, certainly. But where’s the meat? How will he support nature? What methods will he use? Bob believes that by getting lots of people to ‘like’ nature he can get it on the political agenda. And indeed, MPs can also sign up and back Bob. But how does getting MPs to sign up actually push the many different agendas and issues on the environmental spectrum? I asked Bob (through the medium of Twitter, he’s a very technology-savvy squirrel) how it all worked. He replied:

So far, so vague. If you were a politician and you found a nice campaign with a groundswell of support and no actual solid commitments and agendas, wouldn’t you sign up for it? It is a no lose situation. There is nothing here to hold them to or to call them out on at a later date.

Yes, there is a place for this kind of marketing to promote the work of charities, but it cannot replace policy. But Bob is a very cute and fluffy figurehead, and I’m sure he will sell a lot of merchandise for the RSPB. Is Bob anymore than a vote to salve your conscience, a sop for your principles and ethics without having to actually leave your desktop? Is this environmental activism for the 21st century – to battle fracking, habitat destruction and development one twitter follower at a time? It’s about time we started to push our agenda forward using all the technology available to us, but when we allow people to believe that habitats and species can be saved at the click of a button, we have failed in our objectives to engage and inspire.

This all reminds me that I need to rewatch ‘Project Wild Thing’, a recent documentary about reconnecting children with nature and the danger of screen time. It’s probably the most ‘successful’ of the recent media led campaigns in terms of people signing up online (I don’t think I need to highlight the irony of this point, though it appears I just did). I will post about that hopefully next week.

*Authors note – Red Squirrels have it tough. If habitat loss, squirrelpox and invasive species weren’t bad enough, they’ve now got leprosy to deal with. Bob, why not make the first item in your manifesto signing MPs up to back methods for your own protection, such as removing disease vectors?

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10 thoughts on “Going Viral – Nature moves into the 21st Century

  1. Aye, any comms from the rspb these days is accompanied by a request for your cash. Email, letter, web page, cold calling, you name it, they’ve signed up to it. They’re not alone in this, but it does feel like a step too far.

    I had a less sophisticated rant about Bob a while back and a friend has just commented on that post, linking me to this one. Many thanks for your carefully-crafted thoughts. I shall return here, methinks.

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    • Thanks for the reply and thanks for reading. A lot of charities are moving, necessarily, into the more assertive form of marketing you mention and I think #VoteBob is a quite clear demonstration of when a PR/fundraising dept runs with something without taking much input from actual conservation staff. More than anything, I think it’s a missed opportunity

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  2. Definitely an interesting aproach to the matter. I hadn’t looked at it deep enough to consider all of this, it’s good that there still are environmentalist critics out there.
    I would like to say, though, that I think it’s a good idea. The problem is that it’s only supported by only one charity. This kind of campaigns should have been supported but all the environmental charities across the UK to make a real effect. As you say, it’s a missed opportunity.

    The other thing you well commented was the fact that we are doing a “click” activism. Just joining campaigns we think it’s enough. And related to that, I was surprised how many and how big are the charities in this country when I arrived. I think it’s all the same problem, trying to clean our bad conscience by joining a charity or clicking into some campaign. I don’t know what we can do to change that.

    Hope to read more posts like this 😉

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    • Thanks Eloi, it’s definitely a good idea, and I think that’s what irritated me at first, it seemed to be a missed opportunity with no particular meat behind the general ‘isn’t nature great’ message. They could have done so much more by acting communally with other charities or groups, but it now just comes across as a platform to sell fluffy toys. It was also the pretense that it was an independent movement and not the RSPB behind it all that irked me (they are promoted as Bob’s ‘biggest supporter’ on the website, whereas in reality, they are Bob). It smacks a little of stealth high street marketing and is not really becoming of an environmental charity.

      Bob is still sidestepping (or just ignoring) questions about substance and policies, but the whole thing is running up until the general election, so I’ll be keeping a look out for anything concrete such as actual policies etc

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