Video Contest: Your Choice vs. the “Expert” Choice

Who is right when a national environmental group holds a video competition and the public and the “experts” disagree on who should win?

At the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, the jury of film experts chose Forty Shades of Blue as the best dramatic film.  The Audience Award went to Hustle & Flow.  I don’t know which was a better film, but I do know Hustle & Flow went on to earn $20 million in wide release in the U.S., while Forty Shades of Blue topped out at $75,000.  I’m sure it doesn’t always happen that way, but it goes to show that the experts don’t always know what will succeed in the marketplace of ideas.

We at Environmental Defense Fund just finished something a bit like a film festival — a competition that challenged participants to make a 30 second ad that explains how capping greenhouse gas pollution will help cure our national addition to oil.  This week we announced two winners, one selected by our staff and another chosen by thousands of voters online.  Like at Sundance, the voters and the judges chose different winners…in fact, the video chosen by us “experts” came in dead last in the online voting.

I thought it might be interesting to explain our decision and see what others think.

To begin with, I’ll admit we have no idea if we’re right.  We got about 100 entries to the contest, many of them very high quality.  We chose five finalists for the online competition and any one of them was worthy of winning.   Our criteria had less to do with expert filmmaking than picking the video that most vividly and memorably explained a somewhat complex message.  (The competition, as you might guess, was conceived when gas was $4 a gallon.  But don’t kid yourself, worldwide demand will return with the economic recovery and $4 will seem like a bargain before too long.)

We’ve been trying to create clear messages on this topic for a while, with varying degrees of success. But we have learned some things along the way. The most important lesson, perhaps, is this one: Despite the millions of Americans who care passionately about global warming, making real progress hinges on winning over the folks who don’t have the time to focus on the details.  That means our job is to first get their attention and, second, to transmit a simple and compelling message.

This task is even more difficult because the only policy solution that guarantees the emissions cuts we need, a strong cap on greenhouse gases, is a regulatory process — and the public has little time to focus on that level of detail. People may care deeply about the outcomes – clean energy, new jobs, less pollution, less oil dependence – but it’s hard to get them to give a lot of thought to how we should achieve those ends. Try explaining that the big money and innovation for clean energy will come from spurring the private sector through a cap, and even some Congressional staff start thinking about their fantasy football lineup.

Back to the winners. Our online voters chose Thinking Cap, a great spot that clearly explains how a cap will spark innovation.

It uses simple graphics to show that the cap will spur investment in clean energy and result in less money flowing overseas for oil.  And it’s got the memorable image of a “thinking cap”.  Even before the results of the vote were in, A Siegel said “we have a winner” with “Thinking Cap,” impressed by its clear coverage of the full range of issues involved.

So why didn’t we pick it as our winner?  Well, we chose it as a finalist because we agree it’s very well done.  But there’s a difference between being clear to climate activists who are concentrating on videos they’ve chosen to watch on their computer, and a spot that’s effective with Americans far less familiar with the topic.  For them, it will be one of many commercials flying by on TV, only a handful of which will really capture their attention.  In other words, we think “Thinking Cap” might work best for those who are already paying attention and care about this issue.

The video we chose, “Cursing Cap,” had two qualities that really stood out to us.

First, it immediately captures the attention of even the most casual viewer because it begins with a close-up of a man cursing (bleeped out, of course).  Second, it employs an ingenious analogy to explain the carbon cap: the character in the ad says he made himself pay a dollar every time he cursed, in an effort to cut down.  And that caused him to think up new, cleaner ways to express his frustrations — like “Walrus breath!”  We think an analogy like that is a vivid and memorable way to explain a cap and might even get it stuck the minds of those we need to reach.None of that, of course, means we’re right and the online voters are wrong.  “Thinking Cap,” or one of the other three excellent finalists, might be the most effective ad.

In fact, we are planning to use a mix of these spots on television to help convince the public (and their representatives in DC) that we need a new direction in our energy and environmental policies.  Because, as President Obama said in reiterating his support for a cap, “delay is no longer an option.”

Are you surprised by our choice?  Since we’re now making decision about what ads to put on the air, I’d be interested to hear reaction to all the videos.

Update: A Siegel shared more thoughts on the winners over on his blog. Thanks!

Keith Gaby is the communications director of our national climate campaign.

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  1. hite40
    Posted February 7, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    I think the Thinking Cap video is the best. I also liked the Carbon limit video that was in 2nd place. What I didn’t like about the Cursing Cap was the sound quality, hard to understand. The other 2 were more clear and to the point.

  2. leahzero
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    I’m the creator of the Carbon Limit video. Everyone did a great job, and I had a hard time guessing who would win, constantly going back and forth over which video seemed the strongest.

    In the end, I think “Get Off the Couch” and “Cursing Cap” made the most powerful and memorable impact. I prefer “Get Off the Couch,” because its humor and message seem more modern and universal, whereas a cursing cap is something that I and most people I know can’t personally relate to (although I understand the analogy and think it’s an apt one). Also, “Get Off the Couch” is clear about putting the burden of responsibility on the industries which pollute, by portraying industry as the guest who’s overstaying his welcome. The cursing cap analogy, however, isn’t clear about where responsibility lies: it’s trying to engage us by talking about something we’re meant to relate to on a personal level (trying to curb a bad habit), but then it says that industry is the one who should willingly adopt a fee for their own bad behavior. While the analogy is initially arresting, it’s not clear about where responsibility lies, whereas the couch analogy leaves no doubt about who has to pay and why.

    Interestingly, one complaint I noticed come up repeatedly on blog posts discussing this contest is that none of the finalist videos, even the information-dense entries, manage to fully explain a carbon cap and trade system. I think that’s a limitation of the length and direction we had to work with, but it’s interesting to see that there is a demand for more detail and information.

  3. lenn
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I think that all of the Videos are great but only one is usable here in Canada. Since the problem is Global the resolves should be global and the contest surely was global. Lets think outside the box (America) people.

    The costs for the creation of a video of significant value are in most cases far higher than the participants could afford which is why most of them are cartoons. If significant amounts were to be awarded then competitors would be able to buy stockshotor shoot material to enhance their project and a superior level could be reached that is warrented by the enormity of the problem.

  4. Keith Gaby
    Posted February 9, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for your thoughts. leahzero made an excellent point about the videos not giving a full explanation of cap and trade — and she’s right that it was the contest rules that, for all practial purposes, prevented that. For those who follow the issue closely, cap and trade is a pretty logical concept, but it turns out to be hard to explain to the general public…and next to impossible in 30 seconds. One of the reasons we held the contest was because it has been a challenge for us to educate the public in a quick and compelling way. Check out some of our previous attempts here. Most Americans have other important things on their minds (keeping their jobs, raising their kids), so we have to figure out ways to get their attention and present our case in a way that spurs them to action.

  5. Janet Dougherty
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with EDF. The cursing cap will catch the attention of those we need to give the message to. We already know and agree with it. We need to capture the attention of people who don’t know or understand this issue. If it captures their attention, maybe they’ll want to find out more. They are all very commendable though. Just my first impression.

  6. Angel
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking about a commercial/PSA with this content would be better yet:

    “which eco. friendly car is better- more bueatiful- more useful, or more conventional for the standard use”

    could be more useful for me the people who can only sit back and watch what is happening. I am 80% of a population driving earth who do not own a cooperation or a business.

    Everyone drives a car- we all contribute ours punches right there and I am constantly reminded about it- but I can not afford anything else as a student.

  7. Charlotte
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    All the videos seem to be missing a key factor about the cap and trade system, and could just as easily be referring to a carbon tax. What was left out is a cap and trade system has a two-way benefit: you pay if you pollute AND you ARE PAID not to pollute. (Reducing your emissions means you can sell your credits)
    So, for the guy finding alternatives to cursing, not only wouldn’t he be paying into the jar, but he would be making money from others who still swear.

    Otherwise, I thought all of them were quite well done.

  8. Posted February 19, 2009 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    Seems to be a problem on the competition winners page – looks like script tags are appearing where they shouldn’t be, and I can’t watch the winning videos.

    Editor’s note: Thanks for letting us know…the problem is cleared up now!

  9. Posted February 21, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    I think the general self-absorbed public will respond better to “Goldfish” or “Get off the couch” than either of the “winners.”

    Glad to hear that edf has decided to use a mix of the videos as I do not think the cursing man will grab the casual viewer’s attention.

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