Following record temperatures this week – an alarming, tangible example of our warming change  Faris Yakob considers the paradox in the advertising conversation.

The British are known the world over for many things but one of the most characteristic is their tendency to discuss the weather. According to the anthropologist Kate Fox (whose book Watching the English is an absolute delight and a must read for any planner working in England), 94% of Brits say they have conversed about the weather in the previous six hours, and 38% say they have in the past hour.

Our reputation is interesting itself since many countries have some expression that suggests their weather is particularly variable (four seasons in one day) but the British are known for it. Fox suggests this is because British people are uncomfortable talking to each other and avoid it in general, thus “weather talk is a kind of code that we have evolved to help us overcome social inhibitions”.

This article by an erstwhile local would seem to be a case in point but I’m not making small talk. The weather is understood to be one of the biggest drivers of variance in the sales of many, if not most, consumer goods. We all logically appreciate that ice-cream sales spike in the summer but more so when it gets hotter.

However, explanations of this nature without data to support them lead us towards narrative fallacies as insights. For example, it is entirely logical to think that heavy rain will lead people to stay inside and thus suppress retail sales. It is also logical to think that heavy rain will drive people into covered shopping malls and thus increase sales. Humans are excellent at fabulating just-so stories that explain complex phenomena in a simple way that suits their current purpose.

A study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the USA explored the economy’s weather sensitivity. The report concluded that the impact of weather on the US economy is 3.4% of GDP – or about half a trillion dollars at the time. A study by the UK’s Met Office and the British Retail Council concluded that “during the Summer to Autumn transition, nearly half of the variation in weekly sales growth from year to year can be accounted for by differences in temperature” and that, of course, it affects categories differently. The Met Office also recently announced the first ever ‘level four red alert extreme heat warning’ because temperatures hitting 40C could have “population-wide adverse health effects”.

British infrastructure was not built to withstand such temperatures. Demand for air conditioners in the UK has grown consistently for the last decade and will continue to do so, but huge increases in the cost of energy will ensure only those with a lot of discretionary income can use them. The costs of air conditioning, which are often separated out in rental accommodation, can be the same as the cost of accommodation in tropical countries, where it is all but essential and thus has already been priced into the cost of living.

Everything competes for share of wallet especially during times of inflation and everything impacts everything else. Weather related traffic to a store drives associated non-seasonal purchases. A report by the National Retail Federation showed that coffee “sees sales swings of 5% on average due to the weather” but that major markets in the Northeast of the USA experience coffee demand of “10% above normal levels when cool weather extends into spring”.

Physical availability matters and getting people into stores is still the best way to get them to buy. This leads to some “accidentally dystopian advertising” (to quote the Twitter account I saw it on) such as the Islington branch of Iceland which has created a customer ‘chill-out zone’ in the freezer aisle for the heatwave. The frozen food retailer has installed deckchairs because it noticed that Brits head to the freezer aisles to cool off when it gets hot. No doubt the best of intentions but this is literally rearranging the deckchairs. 

At Cannes this year, the founder of the agency Daddy (which became CPB Sweden when he sold it), who now heads up creative for Greenpeace, protested the awards, returning his statue, with the message “No awards on a dead planet, Ban Fossil Ads!” Energy companies have been called out endlessly for greenwashing through their vast advertising and PR budgets. Without getting into the decades-long climate-change-denial playbook, it’s simple to see that there is a remarkable discrepancy between their advertising and businesses.

Since at least 1999 activists have pointed out, and initiated class action lawsuits about such for misleading consumers, that energy companies tend to use their ads to talk about renewables and clean technology but to invest less than 5% of their capital into such initiatives. Famously the idea of a consumer ‘carbon footprint’ was created by Ogilvy for BP in 2004 to turn attention away from corporate behavior and place the blame back on consumers. Brands that exhort their customers to recycle but still make containers, or sachets, out of ‘virgin’ plastic are applying the same sleight of hand. Only 9% of plastic is ever recycled (OECD) because it isn’t profitable to do so.

Despite activism and the liberal leanings of the industry, it is unlikely that an agency in a publicly traded holding company will be allowed to turn down some of the biggest clients on the planet. Most holding companies still have tobacco clients, they just provide different services from less marquee brands in their portfolios in markets where advertising is restricted. And, of course, “fossil ads” could equally apply to cars, plastic, or indeed almost anything that is made and sold at scale in the current economy.

We are uncomfortable talking about this and tend to avoid it. Companies operate within the bounds of the law. Since using recycled plastic is more expensive, they are disinclined to do it. That’s why the State of California recently enacted new legislation to “shift the costs of recycling infrastructure, recycling plants, and collection and sorting facilities to packaging manufacturers and away from taxpayers, who currently foot the bill,” the New York Times reported. It’s why the EU has banned the ten most common single-use plastics. Meanwhile in the UK, Thames Water put their creative account up for pitch on the same day the Government’s Environmental Agency published a report saying it would like to see “prison sentences” for the CEOs of water companies that are responsible for pollution.

This is, perhaps, why a British idea like making a coral reef in the shape of the world “HOPE” won a Grand Prix at Cannes as a campaign to sell cat food. Coral reefs are dying apace, all over the world, almost certainly because it’s getting hotter. A cat food brand cannot be held accountable for solving climate change. Advertising can’t be held responsible for the global impact of unfettered capitalism, but we are all going to be talking about the weather a lot more from now on.