The natural world has influenced the artists of the world, to the best of our knowledge, since we became capable of expression. From the intricate inscriptions on the surfaces of the ancient Chauvet Caves to the curling paper, fabric fronds and structures currently adorning the walls of the City Gallery in our fair city, the forms found in the natural world have continually informed the works that artists have created.
What is occurring now, though, is an interesting blending of the forms of the environment with the agendas and purposes of environmental lobbyists and activists. While motifs inherited from the environments around us have been common for a long time, the use of them to influence people’s views and actions regarding the Earth and the way we treat it is a new development. Organisations such as Greenpeace and Forest and Bird use strong visual campaigns to induce people to donate to and join their cohorts. Alongside these interest groups sit political parties who have also taken up the dogma of environmentalism and attempt to put their ideals into practice; in Aotearoa, for example we have the newly invigorated Green Party.
The Green Party experienced unprecedented success in the 2011 election for many political and social reasons, but their performance was definitely enhanced by their use of the visual medium. The light lime green used in their election material was visually striking but, more importantly, it was a different shade to the deeper forest green associated with the Green Party in the past. The effect of this rebranding was compounded by the inclusion of human figures in the posters, pamphlets and online marketing. This marked an interesting departure from the traditional marketing methods used by environmental groups in the past, where most of the imagery was focused on stylised versions of natural forms inherited from flora and fauna. The shift in colour choice and the inclusion of human figures reflect a rebranding, but they also act as visual signifiers to imply to the viewer that the Green Party has changed and now has a broader and fresher vision for the future of New Zealand. The campaign was a piece of fantastically cynical marketing. By placing young, dynamic looking people in front of a lime green background the Green Party managed to market themselves as an environmental party that acted for people, not just the environment they lived in.
The work done by the Greens last year represents a departure from the age-old tradition of environmental groups advertising themselves as evangelical figures protecting the natural world from the blight of humanity. The cleverness of the Greens’ campaign lay in placing the human element on the side of the earth, as opposed to in opposition to it. In contrast, the aesthetic campaign of Forest and Bird sticks to the dogma of protection instead of collaboration. Their main image is a tree shape composed of figures representing the animals of the sea and land. Their imagery works for their target audience, as it affirms the beauty of nature and works as a metaphorical image symbolising the way nature is made up of many disparate components. The imagery of the organisation is complemented by their motto, “Giving Nature a Voice”. The combination of their lime green background–eerily similar to that of the Greens–the tree of life image and a concise mission statement allows Forest and Bird to directly appeal to the guilt that people feel over their impact on the environment.
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The difference of the effect of the marketing between Forest and Bird and the Green Party is a direct reflection of the differing goals of the two organisations. The Greens need to get people on side and influence them to vote for them. This requirement means that they need to use their visual campaign to include the human in the narrative of the environmental struggle. It also represents the way the party has shifted slightly politically to having complex policies in fields other than protection of the environment. Conversely, Forest and Bird needs the more striking imagery to push people into taking action. Both organisations heavily employ visual tactics to influence their target audience, but their aims mean they both have to approach their marketing in subtly different fashions.
Call me a cynic if you like, but what becomes apparent from looking at these campaigns is that people are sheep to be herded by visual imagery, and this truth is just as apparent in the world of environmentalism as it is in the realms of business or corporate marketing.