Unwrapping The Plastics Crisis Phenomenon

This time last year, almost nobody was talking about a “plastics crisis”. This year, it’s the hottest of topics. One recent UK market research survey claimed that British consumers were as worried about plastic waste as they were about Brexit. Bodies like Greenpeace and ocean conservation charities, which have been campaigning to reduce plastic use for years, suddenly find one of their pet causes in the spotlight. But how did the plastic waste issue finally get onto the public radar, and what lessons can communicators learn from it?

Campaigners might bristle at the idea, but burning issues – assuming they don’t directly affect you – work in people’s memory in quite similar ways to brands. Most people don’t spend much time thinking about any given issue, any more than they proactively spend time thinking about brands. Instead, they notice, care and act when skilful communication makes that easy for them.

Which means exactly the same things matter with hot topics as matter with brands: Fame, Feeling and Fluency. Fame – does the issue come readily to mind as a source of concern? Feeling – does it affect me emotionally? And Fluency – how easy is it to understand the problem and act on the solutions?

Let’s look at how these things work in the plastics crisis.

Let’s start with Fame. The plastics crisis shot onto the public radar thanks to the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, the flagship nature documentary which enjoyed huge British audiences and was licensed around the world. The show brought the problems of plastic in the oceans to dramatic life. For our purposes though, what matters isn’t just the great storytelling but the medium – mass audience TV, giving the plastics issue a huge reach. Mass media has never been less fashionable among marketers, but it’s still the best way to build awareness and Fame.

Next you need Feeling. Plastics have become an emotive issue, a symbol for the impact of humankind on the planet. The sense of the natural being invaded by the artificial, and of frivolous human actions (like exfoliating or outdoor drinking) having disastrous hidden consequences, make powerful triggers for negative emotion, as seen in the 5-Star System1Agency campaign against plastic litter.

But to successfully translate to action, negative emotions like anger and sadness have to be resolved. This is where the presence of long-term campaigners is so important. They have a sheaf of ready-made solutions available, like government bans on plastic microbeads, which can be pushed for and then presented as wins, keeping the momentum up.

But solutions laboured over in think tanks and lobbyist meetings can often feel dry and technical to the public. This is where you need Fluency – making the problem and the actions needed easy to understand. Without Fluency, it’s all too easy for an issue to seem complicated, confusing and ultimately “not my problem”.

Our innovation team has been working on the prospects for Fluent Innovation around plastic waste reduction, but there’s also been a lot of imaginative work done to dramatise the issue. We particularly like the LadBIBLE initiative “Trash Isles”, a campaign to declare the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (now three times larger than France) an independent nation with a citizenry of concerned celebrities. In truth the garbage patch has no solid areas to land on, but the campaign brings the issue to life in a lively and darkly amusing way.

So for campaigners desperate to bring their issue to the public, we say – remember Fame, Feeling and Fluency.

  1. Get the widest media reach you can to build Fame.
  2. Have solutions at the ready to turn powerful negative Feeling into actionable positive emotion.
  3. Simplify and dramatise to build Fluency and keep momentum high.


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