An attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to humor Americans into protecting the planet has backfired. The media campaign called "How to Destroy the Earth" used reverse psychology to pass along environmental tips. But there was a small problem. Many of the tips were wrong, and a few of them were too radical for the Bush-era EPA to endorse.
The embarrassed EPA has withdrawn some of the ads and put out a story that minor tinkering had to be done. The good news is that a well-meaning Boston ad man, Steve Cosmopulos, donated $1 million worth of his creative time and energy to come up with the campaign, so the EPA has only wasted $18,000 of your money in production costs.
Cosmopulos, who just wanted to do his bit for the environment, is still scratching his head, wondering why none of the EPA scientists or bureaucrats caught the mistakes before they went out on the air. The campaign answers the question, "How to destroy the Earth," with some tongue-in-cheek suggestions:
"Pour used motor oil into the ground."
"Leave the lights on, especially when you're not there."
"Drive everywhere. Never walk, ride your bike or take public transportation."
The EPA didn't mind saying those were environmental taboos. But EPA officials drew the line when Cosmopulos threw in this suggestion for destroying Earth: "Use disposable diapers."
Apparently the EPA hasn't noticed that the environmentally correct baby is swathed in cloth these days. EPA officials say there is still an ongoing debate about whether wasting water to clean cloth diapers is a worse offense than throwing them away.
Some other offenses implied in the ads ran afoul of current EPA thinking:
Styrofoam cups are deadly to marine life. The EPA says that ain't necessarily so.
Plastics are toxic when incinerated. That position contradicts what the EPA has said on the record.
Plastics aren't recyclable. Wrong again. Some are and some aren't.
Sources in the EPA told us that no one checked the campaign with the agency's environmental experts before it was produced. Once the ads hit the air in a test area in New England, the bloopers loomed large.
But that was no problem for the resourceful EPA. Our associate Tim Warner has obtained an internal EPA memo on how to ease the ads out of circulation without creating a stir.
The memo, written by the EPA's senior public affairs official Lewis Crampton, suggests that the makeover be handled in the Boston offices of the EPA so it won't look like Washington is censoring the ads. Dow Chemical gave Crampton a perfect excuse to withdraw the ads when the company complained about the use of its trademark, "Styrofoam." Crampton suggests using that as an excuse to the media for recalling the ads.
"Since we are committing truth here, I don't see any problems as long as we work quickly," Crampton wrote. He told us he was not "trying to feed the press a line here," but that he was merely trying to "manage the issue."