In September, 2008, as thousands of ad people swarmed Manhattan during Advertising Week to grapple with the fate of their industry, the Secretary-General of the United Nations sat down with a handful of advertising executives to grapple with the fate of the planet. Ban Ki-moon had convened the meeting to ask for help in something it does not often do: Selling. With less than 15 months to go before the Copenhagen conference on climate change, and the global economy going into a tailspin, the environment was slipping down the list of people's priorities. If citizens remained impassive, so would their leaders, and the UN-sponsored meeting would be a failure.
The ad community's response? A globe-straddling campaign, possibly the largest pro bono public awareness effort ever deployed, called Hopenhagen.
Backed by global marketers including Coca-Cola, SAP, Siemens and BMW, and tapping the creative talents of many of the world's top agencies, the campaign launched in September and has since placed ads in hundreds of locations and outlets, from Times Square to Turkey, reaching into more than 50 countries in at least a dozen languages.
"Getting people to understand not only why this is so keenly important, but what they can do to come on board and act - this is exactly what marketing, communications, advertising, PR do exceedingly well: Get people to be aware and to take action," said Paul Cohen, a vice-president of Ketchum Public Relations in New York.
But how to affect the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people, and to do so in a way that creates momentum? "I always felt it was going to be a cross between a product launch and an election campaign," said Michael Lee of the International Advertising Association, a global industry organization accredited by the UN as a non-governmental organization to shepherd the Hopenhagen initiative.
Months of research, in other words, would lead to a short, fast, aggressive deployment. "We'd bore people to death, or they'd tune out if we started to try to talk about this over an eight-month period," Mr. Lee said.
In January, a group of executives from Ogilvy & Mather travelled to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to conduct research with an unusual focus group, whose 45 participants included ministers of the environment from South Africa, Denmark and other countries. During a session entitled "Shaping the Climate Change Message," the Ogilvy team discovered a new sentiment toward climate issues.
"Scary wasn't working any more," said Mr. Lee, noting that other research backed up the findings from the Davos meeting. "There was a notion that the imagery of climate change, of lonely polar bears on rapidly melting glaciers, had already been widely seen and that people had tuned out to that, because everybody was worried about jobs and the economy.
"People were really looking to relate the economic opportunity of more environmentally friendly personal habits or business practices," he added. Responding to the research, "the Secretary-General began to introduce the Green Economy in his language."
Which is where the awkwardly inspiring name Hopenhagen, an Ogilvy creation, came from. A series of television spots for the initiative begin with portents of doom - a belching smokestack, a headline about the increasing frequency of powerful hurricanes - before fading into images of hope, like a blossoming flower or the iris of an eye.
In radio spots, print ads, billboards and Web ads, other Hopenhagen creative executions encourage people to move from merely coping with climate change to hoping (and, implicitly, advocating) for change.
By what may be a happy coincidence, the shift from a downbeat voice nicely aligns with the marketing initiatives of the companies supporting Hopenhagen. "A number of things about Hopenhagen are particularly interesting, and aligned with our brand values of optimism and hope," observes Lisa Manley, the director of environmental communications for Coca-Cola.
"It's taking some of the direness of the reality of climate change and trying to show people that we can make a difference." She adds that the Copenhagen conference offers a platform from which, "as businesses, we can tell our stories about how companies are taking action."
Having helped to raise the profile of the Copenhagen conference, some of the organizations behind Hopenhagen will, naturally, be using the spotlight to bring attention to themselves.
The IAA is an aggressive proponent of freedom of commercial speech, especially in developing countries where governments might be more inclined to regulate. Mr. Lee noted that a campaign like Hopenhagen helps promote the ad industry's reputation as a responsible global citizen.
Coke will have a big presence at the conference, exploiting "pouring rights" it secured from the city of Copenhagen that will enable it to have refreshment venues on site staffed by servers in clothing made in part of recycled plastic, touting Coke's new environmentally friendly PlantBottle. A number of high-ranking Coke executives will be in attendance, including chief executive officer Muhtar Kent, who will co-host a UN event at Kronborg Castle. While the company has come under criticism in the past for contributing to global pollution by selling water in single-serve plastic bottles and drawing too much water in developing countries, it has aligned with the World Wildlife Fund, and will also use the conference to release a scientific paper it has commissioned on climate change and water stress.
Coca-Cola will be monitoring how its activities and special Hopenhagen ads play at the conference, and may expand its use of the creative in continuing campaigns in other parts of the world.
BMW will be ferrying delegates around the city in a livery of electric vehicles wrapped in Hopenhagen logos.
SAP, too, will be using the conference in part to push its clients to recognize the importance of embracing sustainable practices. "Our 90,000 customers are emitting about one-sixth of the world's carbon emissions," said Peter Graf, SAP's chief sustainability officer. "We actually believe five years down the road, you will not be able to sell the type of software we're selling without [the ability to monitor]sustainability in it."
Mr. Graf added that, while a few SAP executives will attend some events at the conference, including the official handover of a virtual petition signed by over 430,000 visitors to Hopenhagen.org, he did not yet know whether he would make the trip. "From a carbon perspective," he said, flying from his base in Palo Alto, Calif., to bring attention to climate change might be a counterintuitive move.