I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by the feedback to the last post in particular, which is going to take some digesting.  In the meantime, I wanted to erect a quick counterpoint to my Rainforest Alliance post, which a lot of people thought a little on the harsh side (which I disagree with)– and a few more commented that I wasn’t exactly sticking to my claimed principle of appreciative inquiry (which I take on the chin!).

Setting aside some of the more difficult questions regarding the proper role of commercial businesses for now (with the full intention of returning to them), I’ll do so with some analysis of the current RSPB advertising campaign, and in particular the television execution that leads it:

There are three main reasons why I consider this a great example of talking to us as Citizens, the first two of which correspond broadly to the key elements of Citizenship I pulled out in an earlier post.

The first corresponds to the idea that Citizens, as opposed to Consumers, have both rights and duties.  The RSPB recognise this because they explicitly ask us to DO something – and that something is not just to buy something, and not just to click or text (though in both cases these media are used appropriately as starting points), but actually to take action in our own lives.  The Rainforest Alliance story is here thrown into relief in its triviality, what one email I received described as “teenage politics (much like Kony2012) – ‘WHY DON’T THOSE OLD GUYS REALISE THAT IF WE JUST FORWARD THIS MOVIE/CLICK LIKE/RETWEET THEN WE CAN FIX THE WORLD!!??’”.

In asking more of us, these communications ask us to be active in the world, capable of representing our beliefs and values through our actions, not resigning ourselves to be acted on as passive “mere consumers” to use the phrase of Pope Francis.  This distinction between Active Citizens and Passive Consumers is important, but here I want to flag a point that I think I will need to come back to later: as another comment I received pointed out to me the other day, Consumerism is itself becoming more Active, a trend perhaps best expressed in the recent 2013 Wolff Olins/Flamingo GameChangers report (for which I was consulted but ill-represented!).  So – more to come – but for now, what I will say is that asking people to be Active is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of communicating to Citizens rather than Consumers.  We could move to Active without moving beyond Consumers, and this is indeed a significant danger.

The second reason why I think this is a great example corresponds to a conflation of the other two key elements of the concept of Citizenship – the ideas of membership and civic equality.  Again, the Rainforest Alliance ad provides the perfect foil, with its completely explicit message that acting in anything other than your own narrow self-interest is not just unnecessary but actually counter productive and stupid.  RSPB’s campaign, by contrast, has as a clear aim that we act beyond or at least expand our concept of our narrow self-interest, by incorporating the good of nature into our own personal good.  They talk to us as part of something – a wider natural world – not as narrow individuals who can or should only be motivated by direct benefit to ourselves.

Again, there is a point here that I can only touch on now but will come back to – I increasingly believe there is a distinction to be drawn between enlightened self-interest, which leaves the narrow self intact but asks us to rationalise ‘altruistic’ acts as personally beneficial; and what I might call expanded self-interest, which asks us to consider ‘altruistic’ acts as self-interested by expanding the definition of the self to be broader and more inclusive.

The third reason is very simple.  This piece of communication manages to bring as much joy as anything I have seen.  It shows that while communicating to Citizens is worthwhile, it doesn’t have to be made worthy.

Several of those who commented on my previous post suggested I was being too harsh on the Rainforest ad – “it’s just a funny film”.  But I disagree.  It is precisely because of the subject matter that this film is so deeply destructive.  It is completely explicit in its claim that the only sensible thing to do is to stick to narrow self-interest.  And it diminishes us as a result.

The Rainforest Alliance have got it deeply, badly wrong.  The RSPB I believe show there is a much more promising way forward.

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