The advertising and marketing community is hitching itself to the Next Big Thing (NBT). There is a choice we can now make as marketing and advertising professionals. We have immense power and responsibility in shaping the lives, experiences and choices of citizens. Question is, will your NBT be working on how our industry and the consumers we reach can reduce carbon emissions? Or will your NBT be focused on persuading consumers to escape to a vision of a questionable future called the metaverse, asks Jonathan Wise, co-founder, Purpose Disruptors.
To many in our industry, the “metaverse /NFT/block-chain-enabled web3.0” is the Next Big Thing.
There is absolutely no doubt that this is going to be big. 2.9 billion people have been trained to maintain relationships virtually on Facebook/Meta, a generation of kids have been prepped to spend time as an avatar, with others, in an immersive world through Minecraft and Fortnite, and computing power now blurs the lines between reality and the virtual world with Unreal Engine 5 and Grand Turismo 7. Put these things in a mixing bowl and it’s easy to imagine hundreds of millions of people in VR goggles spending thousands of hours in their own virtual worlds, socialising and entertaining themselves in photoreal environments. Sounds great huh?
Goldman Sachs agrees, suggesting it’s an $8 trillion opportunity. No wonder brands are piling in wondering how to take advantage of the NBT.
However, there is also a rather big challenge we know we are facing and cannot avoid: our climate emergency.
So here’s a provocation: the metaverse encourages us to act like children; our climate emergency requires us to act like adults.
Advertising and marketing communications, whether we like it or not, are part of the problem. At COP26, Purpose Disruptors presented the findings of our new report: Advertised Emissions. Working with econometrics agency Magic Numbers, we calculated that advertising adds an extra 28% to the carbon footprint of every person in the UK. Advertising and marketing drives consumption, which increases emissions, which causes climate change.
If we want our world to be habitable for ourselves, our children, and their descendants, we have to accept that we need to reduce that figure.
Of course, we will say that we want to protect the future for ourselves and families, but will our choices and actions actually bear that out?
The climate flywheel is turning. We have set in motion a series of events, which if not addressed, will ensure we meet the dystopian predictions you’ve heard about. The good news is that most companies are setting ambitious net zero plans. To achieve them will require intensive collaboration and teamwork, to reduce the carbon footprint for all the products and services we consume in real life - food, clothes, technology, cars, furniture, white goods etc. This can only happen with the proactive engagement of marketing and advertising, to reorientate the consumer towards accepting and desiring new circular business models and low carbon alternatives.
In this moment, we must acknowledge the negative impact we are making on climate, have the difficult conversations about what we need to do, and not do, and take decisive action. We must be the adults in the room.
Choosing to meaningfully solve the climate crisis shifts us into a more mature adult role. Choosing to subscribe to the metaverse points us in the opposite direction, and we become more like children in three ways:
- By pursuing opportunities presented by the metaverse we choose to ignore the damage we cause. Like children, we’re leaving the untidy mess we have created for future generations to clear up, while we are attracted to the NBT.
- The metaverse is a fabricated reality. It will be what we want it to be. Most brands are grounded in a positive, life-affirming sentiment, so we work hard to create pleasurable experiences and design out anything that consumers won’t like, satisfying the wishes of a child.
- By spending time in the metaverse where rules are created by others, we are accepting what others tell us the future should be like. One of life's pleasures and challenges is choosing how we want to live – not to have the basic building blocks and boundaries (literally) coded by computer scientists in Silicon Valley.
Of course, people need an escape, and the metaverse will be an endless rabbit hole of entertainment. But it is entertainment, not an alternative to life.
A danger is that another negative feedback loop will be created. The less time we spend tackling our climate emergency, the greater the desire will be to escape into a VR world. If we don’t act, week after week the world will get hotter, the wildfires more intense, the flooding more frequent. Meanwhile the metaverse will develop, made more attractive by ‘compelling brand experiences’. It is not difficult to see how people will want to shy away from reality and put those googles on again, just for another hour.
I fear we are too fallible to step up and do what is needed. We are sliding into child-like avatars of ourselves in an environment constantly driven by distraction, rather than becoming the best versions of our adult selves, individually and collectively.
When we interviewed UK citizens for our GoodLife2030 project, their desire, post-COVID, was for more connection: to self, others and nature. Not more time online. The real world is where love, touch, challenge, difficulty, joy, anger and all the vibrant beauty and harshness that life has to offer happens. One of life's great pleasures, in the real world, is the satisfaction of working together, in a group, to overcome a challenge. We thrive on camaraderie, support, problem solving, being in it together, for each other, aiming to achieve a common goal. As with any team sport, we crave the hug of success.
Solving the climate emergency in 8 years can be the pinnacle of human collaboration and problem solving on a global scale. Or we can hide-away, in a questionable alternative VR space where things are as we wish them to be.
The more time we spend in the latter, the more we lessen our chances of solving the former.
The choice is yours to make.