Wow! Watch the Nissan Leaf’s provocative, irreverent polar bear ad, which markets global warming

… and makes the anti-science disinformers go nuts

I am very interested in your thoughts on this remarkable ad:

Here are mine:

As an advertisement for a product aimed at a specific demographic, I think it is quite clever. I’d give it an A.

And maybe I should add a “+” for the fact Nissan ran this on Thursday’s National Football League opener, which featured the New Orleans Saints, the closest thing we have to America’s team thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Coincidence? I think not.


UPDATE: I’m giving it another “+” for the response it is provoking in the anti-science, pro-pollution crowd. It’s been said that the disinformers are humorless, but Anthony Watts actually wrote: “The ad agency that serves Nissan (as does Nissan management) deserves a smack upside the head for promoting the idea that you can hug a polar bear. Some people are actually stupid enough to try it.” As commenter MarkB notes, “Shame on all those parents who give their kids teddy bears, which brainwashes them into thinking they are harmless. Same goes for creators of Yogi, Smokey, Bernstein, etc.” Some people are actually stupid enough to believe the long-debunked disinformation that Watts spouts, disinformation that will ultimately harm far, far more people than polar bears, which, in any case, will be wiped out if we keep listening to folks like Watts. What’s next? Attacking the Road Runner cartoons for promoting the idea that you can run off of a cliff, look down, and then run back? Seriously.

The Leaf is not going to be a high-volume car for a long time — it’s initial target was merely to sell 25,000 in the U.S. by March 31, 2011. Indeed, the big rush for electric vehicles like the Leaf and plug in hybrids like the Chevy Volt is likelier to come this decade from high oil prices due to peak oil than a general desire to buy low-carbon products due to concern about global warming. The inflection point is probably $4 gasoline. So this is a necessarily targeted ad.

Let me get one point out of the way immediately. Yes, if you run the Leaf on 100% coal power, it wouldn’t be greener than a regular car, from a global warming perspective (though it would still have zero tailpipe missions, which has benefits for reduced urban air pollution). From a policy perspective, EVs are mostly an enabler of CO2 reductions — they do directly reduce emissions in most applications — but require legislation that steadily reduces utility emissions overtime to achieve large economy wide benefit.

That said, exceedingly few of the purchasers of the Leaf will be running it on 100% coal power. Quite the reverse. A large fraction will probably be in California, where the electric grid has half the carbon intensity of the U.S. grid — and is poised to drop further this decade unless the Big-Oil funded Proposition 23 effort to kill California’s clean energy laws succeeds.

Most of the rest will likely live in major cities or suburbs, given the roughly 100-mile single-charge range, and most of those areas have a grid at least as clean as the country as a whole (which is roughly equal to a 30% efficient natural gas power plant). Even the state of Tennessee, which “is offering a $2,500 tax rebate to the first 1,000 buyers of electric vehicles” on top of the federal $7500 rebate, has a grid roughly as clean as the national average. And, of course, many of the early adopters will be green consumers who purchase electricity with 100% renewable content ( or actually own their own PV system).


So it is quite fair to characterize the Leaf to its target audience as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Almost any buyer can lower their CO2 emissions by purchasing it, potentially by a large amount. As I have argued at length many times, Plug-in hybrids and electric cars are a core climate solution. It is hard to envision a plausible solution to global warming or peak oil that doesn’t involve them (and yes, a lot of conservation and dematerialization, too).

As for the polar bear, it simply is hard to beat as an iconic image of global warming.

If this were an ad from an environmental group aimed at raising awareness of global warming, I might put on my wonk hat and say that emphasizing the climate impact on animals is simply not going to move the needle on public opinion on the need for climate action. Most people are not going to change who they vote for (let alone their own behavior) to to save a bunch of animals.

But this is an ad from a car company that wants to tell a story quickly — which in turn needs iconic characters. I think Andrew Leonard at Salon misses the point twice with his column “The Nissan Leaf global warming hard sell: An electric car ad campaign invites culture war controversy. They’ll be lining up in Berkeley.”

First off, it isn’t just people in Berkeley who care about global warming (see Stanford poll: The vast majority of Americans know global warming is real). The broad public wants action — even regulations (see New poll: Americans want EPA action on climate). Green marketing is mainstream and global warming marketing is going to grow in the coming decade as the reality of Arctic ice melt and rising temperatures and extreme weather become increasingly obvious to all but the hard-core deniers.

Second, I don’t see how you can call this irreverent and largely worldless ad a “hard sell.” There is no in-your-face lecture on global warming. The word is never mentioned. It is primarily trying to be memorable with the polar bear story — an extended metaphor that connects the buyer of this car to what’s happening in the Arctic (and around the planet), ending with the innocuous tagline “Innovation for the Planet; Innovation for All.” It’s just “think globally, act locally” captured in a clever ad.


And where the ad does imply climate science, it implies science that is quite strong. It simply isn’t possible to dispute that the Arctic is melting — unless you are on the very fringes of the extremist disinformer Kool-aid-drinking club (see NSIDC Director Serreze: Arctic is “continuing down in a death spiral. Every bit of evidence we have says the ice is thinning.”) And human emissions are driving this rapid melting (see Major analysis finds “less ice covers the Arctic today than at any time in recent geologic history”).

And while it is true that the anti-science pro-pollution disinformation campaign funded by big oil pushes the talking point that polar bears are doing fine — which ain’t true — it is again very hard to dispute what continued warming means for the polar bear.

The NYT’s Revkin blogged last year, “More Polar Bear Populations in Decline”:

There is rising concern among polar bear biologists that the big recent summertime retreats of sea ice in the Arctic are already harming some populations of these seal-hunting predators. That was one conclusion of the Polar Bear Specialist Group, a network of bear experts who met last week in Copenhagen to review the latest data (and data gaps) on the 19 discrete populations of polar bears around the Arctic. The group, part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, includes biologists in academia and government and at nonprofit conservation organizations. Only one bear population is increasing (in the Canadian high Arctic), while eight are declining in numbers, the scientists said. At its last meeting, in 2005, the group concluded that five populations were in decline. Three populations appear to be stable and seven are too poorly monitored to gauge a trend.

The BBC reported last year, “Polar bears have shrunk over the last century, according to research.” A study in the Journal of Zoology “describes changes in size and shape that could be linked an increase in pollution and the reduction in sea ice.”

As for the future, “The survival of polar bears as a species is difficult to envisage under conditions of zero summer sea-ice cover,” concludes the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, by leading scientists from the eight Arctic nations, including the United States. Another 2004 study, by Canadian scientists, agreed:

[G]iven the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely.

Why does the loss of sea ice threaten polar bears? The Canadian study, “Polar Bears in a Warming Climate” in Integrative and Comparative Biology, explains:

Spatial and temporal sea ice changes will lead to shifts in trophic interactions involving polar bears through reduced availability and abundance of their main prey: seals”¦. A cascade of impacts beginning with reduced sea ice will be manifested in reduced adipose stores leading to lowered reproductive rates because females will have less fat to invest in cubs during the winter fast. Non-pregnant bears may have to fast on land or offshore on the remaining multiyear ice through progressively longer periods of open water while they await freeze-up and a return to hunting seals. As sea ice thins, and becomes more fractured and labile, it is likely to move more in response to winds and currents so that polar bears will need to walk or swim more and thus use greater amounts of energy to maintain contact with the remaining preferred habitats

Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the IUCN (World Conservation Union) SSC (Species Survival Commission) Polar Bear Specialist Group, explainsthe primary habitat of polar bears is at risk”:

“¦ no habitat, no seals; no seals, no bears. This never was an issue of polar bears alone. The only effective conservation approach is to protect the habitat and this is an issue of climate change. You can distort the issue any way you so desire. At the end of the day, the sea ice is disappearing. Take away the habitat and the species follows shortly thereafter (or before).

If one wanted to make a scientific critique of the ad, it’s in the reverse direction — it’s probably too late to save the Arctic ice, and hence the polar bear [see Arctic death spiral: Naval Postgrad School’s Maslowski “projects ice-free* fall by 2016 (+/- 3 yrs)”]. But that would be splitting hairs. The polar bear is widely seen throughout the culture — and correctly so — as a symbol of what global warming is doing:

Nissan has reality on its side, with a dash of humor. If the anti-science disinformers want to attack this clever ad, well, that is just a bonanza of free media for the car and the ad. I’m sure Nissan is thinking, “Bring it on, deniers!”

UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, in a post on the ad titled, “Smug Alert,” reposts part of copyranter’s rant, “Dying polar bear travels thousands of miles to thank man for buying an electric Nissan. What an absolutely outrageously manipulative insensitive hubristic piece of Green advertising bullshit. From a fucking car company! A car company who’s (non-electric) cars are helping to destroy the bear’s ice pack!”

First off, Sullivan has no standing to make such a charge since he has also been doing his influential part to destroy the bear’s ice pack — and a livable climate for our children and countless future generations — by treating global warming as a not terribly urgent issue, as I discussed here at length. And I don’t see much evidence that copyranter is devoting much efforts to educating the public about the dire need for action that would be required to save the ice pack. The biggest complaints about this ad on the web seem to be coming from folks who don’t take global warming very seriously and/or who are actually actively spreading disinformation about it. Second, all successful ads are designed to be outrageously manipulative. So what? But this is an irreverent, not in-your-face ad. How is it insensitive to highlight the plight of the polar bear? By the logic Sullivan reposts, no company that makes a non-green product could ever advertise the green benefits of one of its products — which pretty much wipes out virtually all green ads for vehicles for all time (since new car companies rarely emerge and ones selling only green cars are going to be a pretty tiny fraction of the market for a long, long time). The ad has its science right and its tongue firmly planted in its cheek. Lighten up, folks.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Peter Sinclair’s video on the way electric cars will fit into the grid is here. See also “Why electricity is the only alternative fuel that can lead to energy independence.”

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