High-Water Marketing
Climate-Change Clothes, a Little Smug on the Hip

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Diesel, the fashion brand, now offers a fresh take on the specter of a globally warmed planet:

More beaches!

In print ads promoting its spring/summer collection, the Italian-based clothing company depicts landscapes that have been transformed by environmental disaster. The proud buildings of Manhattan and the presidential faces of Mount Rushmore are half-submerged in water from melted glaciers. Paris is a steamy jungle. Life looks pretty awesome, though. Diesel's models are dressed fashionably if barely (to accommodate the weather) and they lounge amid this hip dystopia in glamorous unconcern, fanning themselves or applying suntan lotion to one another's tawny backs.

The images are stamped: "Global Warming Ready."

These ads are tongue in cheek, but that may not be apparent to anyone but Diesel customers, who've come to expect this sort of thing. In the past, Diesel has run ads advocating the smoking of 145 cigarettes a day (for that "sexy cough") and the drinking of urine to stay young. The company has also attempted to "sponsor" happiness. The irony is of the dark, European sort, best consumed in the company of Gauloises and knowing laughter.

That global warming is being spoofed by a retailer in the pages of Vogue and Esquire suggests that the issue is sufficiently widespread and accepted to have reached the irony tipping-point. It also speaks to the saturation of cause marketing, now part of the advertising ploys of everything from rubber gloves to skis to Hummel figurines. It was perhaps only a matter of time before a company like Diesel upended this with a perspective that is either humorous or insulting, depending on how you take it.

We are a nation that shops to save the world. Companies sell not just products but clean consciences. Leaving aside the questions an ethicist might ask ( Is it still charity when one only gives to get?), consider the pervasiveness of cause marketing in the pages of magazines and the windows of shops. The slogans are so numerous and so specific they verge on the farcical. Post-its: "Stick Up for the Cause." SunChips: "Crunch for the Cure." The pink ribbons of the breast cancer cause have become so commonplace on retail packaging that newspapers have begun to write of a so-called "pinklash."

Which brings us to global warming, an issue that has lately been everywhere, with Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," and the recent dire report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ben & Jerry's ice cream has been pushing a campaign to "Lick Global Warming." (Blech! That sounds gross.)

Amid all these warnings, Diesel wanted to present global warming in a "positive context," says Wilbert Das, the company's creative director. People have become used to learning about global warming in a serious and science-heavy fashion, he says. Spoofing the issue provides a "bigger shock," he says, possibly provoking consumers to think more.

Possibly. The funny thing about the "Global Warming Ready" campaign is that Diesel gets to have it both ways. Its arch attitude represents the triumph of cleverness over meaning, of sarcasm over what's sacred. It speaks to a culture of parody, in which the meta-news is invoked before the actual news is digested. (Or, as in the recent death of Anna Nicole Smith, the jokes begin before the body grows cold.) The photographic landscapes of Diesel's print campaign are surreal, but certain conventions of the fashion world are secure: The models are still svelte, and stylishness still triumphs over all. You can't be too well-dressed for the apocalypse.

At the same time, Diesel gets to barnacle itself to the underside of one of the advertising world's biggest trends. The company gets to have a cause, at least for the spring/summer campaign. People who visit Diesel.com are encouraged to purchase a DVD of Gore's movie and are directed to the Web site of an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of global warming. A Q&A on Diesel's site addresses a query about how to treat the environment better "without changing my glamorous lifestyle." (Again, that flip humor. The suggestions include having sex to stay warm instead of turning up the heat.)

'Cause marketing's greatest cause is making the sale. With the declining influence of television's 30-second spot and the fragmentation of an audience that now gets its information from three screens (TV, computer and cellphone) instead of one, marketers have to figure out "how to drive a response that's emotional," says Samantha Skey, the executive vice president of strategic marketing at Alloy Media + Marketing.

Skey says her research indicates that young people care about brands doing good, that they look for fairly visible and superficial signs of this goodness (like packaging and advertising) and that they respond to different issues depending on their age. Kids tend to like animal rights because they have pets, Skey says, but they don't get interested in environmental causes till they're in college. Smart marketers pay attention to this stuff when they're choosing what to champion. Skey says she has witnessed cause marketing become more frenetic in the last two years, as companies launch shorter campaigns aimed at capitalizing on whatever disease or tragedy is hot at the moment.

Maybe guilt is the new black. We want to believe we are not just buying a garment; we are helping find a cure for AIDS. We especially want others to know of our valiant efforts to cure AIDS. A garment that communicates this, such as a Product Red T-shirt purchased at the Gap, fulfills both missions. The proclamation of one's own goodness is viewed by young people as "an extension of the personal brand," says Valerie Seckler, who covers advertising and marketing for Women's Wear Daily.

Once upon a time, Seckler points out, the sort of people "who attached themselves to causes . . . really drew a line between that kind of activity and going out and greasing the capitalist wheels."

These days, we are Caring(TM).

Is there a tension here? You betcha. Cause marketing soothes the compunctions of a mass-consumption culture at the same time that it contributes to that excess. It allows us to be giving at the same time that we are selfish. In a recent television ad, actor Ron Livingston tells viewers that if they buy the Red Motorazr cellphone from Sprint, a portion of the proceeds will go toward the problem of AIDS in Africa.

"You also get this very sleek red phone," Livingston says. "Just in case, you know, the saving lives part wasn't enough."

So a campaign that encourages the consumer to do something good, so long as that thing doesn't require changes in a glamorous lifestyle -- such a campaign makes a lot of sense. That's what cause marketing has been pushing all along. The fashion comes first. Diesel may bill its campaign as arch, but there's an underlying honesty.

"We are a fashion brand," Das says by phone from Italy. "We want to sell product. We don't do anything more or less."

How crass. Or refreshing. Depending on how you take it.

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