Also published at Indications.

Having just written a piece for Environmental Communication about the promises and pitfalls of cognitive science-based approaches to communicating about issues like climate change, I can’t help commenting on this video and blog post that arrived this morning on my blog reader from identity campaigning, re-posted from Cognitive Policy Works. The piece both captures and fails to capture salient issues in this debate…

The author, Joe Brewer, gets it right in arguing that the video successfully applies the following “lessons” from cognitive science:

1) That our thinking works in visual and embodiment-based metaphors: Yes, the video employs the graphic physical embodiment of such metaphors portrayed through movement, gesture, dress, etc.

2) That it “makes climate change sexy”: Yes, it does this through the way it elicits, solicits, and interpellates the viewer in a process of desire, a directional build-up whereby we want to “finish the job” of stripping the supermodel. It’s left up to us to do that in our imagination. It’s now in our hands, like a video-game joystick. (Take that where you will…) This point is made by Brewer’s second (“sexy”) and fourth (image schemas) arguments. (The latter, his “balance” and “source-path-goal” schemas, are a fancy way of saying that the metaphors are based in the capacities of the body — for movement toward a goal, for balance, etc.)

3) That it’s effective marketing. Indeed. At 160,000 views as I write, it’s now had 50,000 more views since he wrote his piece.

But his point that it “deconstructs the fashion industry” is wishful thinking on Joe’s part. It plays along with that industry, adding fuel to its workings. (Underwear ads are just as much a part of the industry as are ads for jeans and fur coats, and provoking viewers’ desires to see naked bodies doesn’t take anything away from clothing manufacturers’ ability to sell those bodies clothes.) It adds to the normalization of a certain body image for women: all the models are unhealthily tooth-pick thin women, and all follow the script of how sexy women are supposed to look at their audience of unseen voyeurs. (And did anyone else notice that the more they strip, the more they look 15 years old?) Of course, there’s nothing to stop others from doing alternative versions of this featuring non-white models, male strippers, transvestites, or anything else — which is the argument of the pro-porn feminists, the green fashionistas, et al.

But another thing that strikes me is that the final take-home verbal message — “If you want to see 350, our natural state, you have to get your politicians to act now” (emphasis added) — is not conveyed in a visually or metaphorically effective way. When it comes to graphically embodying any kind of action (other than stripping, or being stripped), our cognitive (embodied, visual, metaphorical) mind is left at the door.

The first text comment below the video when I watched it was dagrimreefah’s “This media cartel sure is doing a great job on all of you livestock” — which is probably intended as a witty interjection of climate denialism, but there’s a more general point that could be made with that. A quick glance at the rest of the comments tells us a few interesting things:

(1) Most of them refer to the physiques of the models (some of them, wisely, asking to see more — not less clothing, mind you, but just more healthy flesh covering their bones);

(2) Of those that refer to the science of climate change, a large number deny it and/or politicize it with anti-Obama rhetoric (or with critiques of his compromises); and

(3) Not a single one seems to get the metaphor of “supermodels” being both the women displayed and the ways — the only ways — in which we actually know about climate change itself and the role “350 parts per million” plays in it.

Climate change models are highly sophisticated, complex pieces of science that deserve a bit more discussion. Riffing on that, however, would take away from the project of making hegemonic (“common-sensifying”) the message about climate change. But I would argue that part of making that message broader is playing up its science (just to raise awareness of how we know about climate change) and, secondly, playing up its ethics and politics: its potential (and already claimed) victims, its costs, and the vested interests on both sides (“old energy” on one, new entrepreneurialism on the other).

Okay, I’m asking too much of a simple 90-second ad. But discussing the ad seems useful, even if it contributes to the viral spread of something I’m ambivalent about…

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