Last week, I was lucky to have the opportunity to pick the brain of communications expert Partick Donadio. Instead of having an abstract conversation on the topic of communicating science. I decided to ask him about a concrete example: Bill Nye’s recent video called “Bill Nye: Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. Patrick provided for us a thoughtful dissection of Nye’s speech. In a later interview, Bill Nye used some of the techniques Donadio described, as Patrick and I were gratified to see.
In writing the article about Nye and Donadio, I plunged into a engrossing debate about how we scientists should respond to the creationist movement. Through blogs and comments on Google+, I heard from evolution advocates enamoured with Donadio’s approach: trying to understand those who are on the fence about the issue to better pull them to our side through empathy, storytelling, and conversation. I also heard from scientific thinkers ready to draw a line in the sand, as Nye did in his video, and engage creationists in verbal battle.
I’d like to take a moment and respond to some of the comments I heard, and throw out a challenge to the more eager evolution advocates. I believe that if you intend to mount an effective campaign against vocal creationists, the only option is modern marketing. If you support a direct verbal attack on the ideals of the young-Earth movement, as Kyle Hill clearly does, I would like to challenge you to film an anti-creationist video with the marketing punch of the top anti-smoking videos, like this one, above.
Marketing. Because in Today’s World, the Content Dictates The Audience
There was a discussion and disagreement about who the intended audience of Nye’s video was. Greg Laden suggested that it was intended to convince the “casual creationist”. Others, like Justin Starr, suggested that the video was intended to rally the base of evolution advocates, and thereby help shift the political center of the debate, the “Overton Window”. A debate blossomed over which end of the belief spectrum was most important to address, and about how hard a line we must draw.
One premise of the debate seemed to be that one could effectively make one video (Nye style) to energize the base of fervent evolution advocates, and perhaps a different video (Donadio style) to recruit new evolution advocates by coaxing the undecided. As Justin Starr put it, “If the video was heard by the intended listener, he/she would not be offended.”
However, I must insist that this is not how communication works in the age of the internet. Routing a video to a particular audience simply by deciding how accommodating your stance will be is not possible. As Laden acknowledged, placing a video on YouTube, as Nye did, makes it viewable to everyone: the base, the creationists, and everyone in between. Indeed, even if Nye hadn’t placed the video on YouTube himself, someone else would likely have done it for him—and it would still have ended up on CNN for all the world to see.
Instead, in today’s internet-driven world, the content itself dictates the audience. It’s not about whom you send a video to; it’s about who feels compelled to watch. If the video isn’t intriguing and exciting to the viewer in the first few seconds, the viewer just surfs away, and argument doesn’t get heard, whether it is an accommodating plea or a blunt diatribe.
So instead of focusing on how accommodating or adamant we need to be, I would like us science communicators to try our hands at devising a heart-stopping marketing campaign for the theory of evolution. Let me explain what I mean.
Science Marketing Lessons from the Anti-Smoking Lobby
Marketing is the craft of understanding and meeting the needs and wants of your audience—like the desire of YouTube watchers to be moved or entertained. Donadio’s communication tools are part of the marketing toolkit; so is “framing” of science. A good marketing campaign, like a political campaign, ensures that your intended audience receives your message and anticipates that your opponents will also receive your message.
We need good marketing to confront savvy creationists like the folks at the Creation Museum. Maybe Bill Nye is not a businessman, as Kyle Hill proposed. But I would venture that Creation Museum CEO Ken Ham is. So to better compete for space in people’s minds, I believe we scientists should no longer eschew the use of business concepts like marketing to further our causes.
There is a growing number of videos about science that demonstrate successful marketing: they draw in their audience using music, irony, animations, rhymes, humor, sex, real life stories. Then they infect viewers with scientific knowledge. Marine biologist-turned filmmaker Randy Olsen has written at length about this kind of videomaking: appealing to the heart, the gut, and the groin. One of my favorite examples of science marketing is the Large Hadron Collider rap video; it’s so catchy, I still find myself singing it in the shower.
Some science marketing videos even draw a line hard enough to satisfy the most vigorous anti-creationist. Some science marketing videos shock and terrify their audience, or aggressively paint opponents as liars. I’m talking about the best videos by anti-smoking lobby: videos that present the medical science of smoking hazards in an unforgettable way, while gluing your eyes to the screen.
Take a look at the stirring anti-smoking video from Thailand (above) that aims right at the heart. It’s analogous to Nye’s video in a way: it’s about teaching smoking to your children. But unlike Nye’s video, it lets the children themselves do the talking, with moving results. Can we summon this kind of emotional impact in a video about evolution?
Or if you’re eager to go negative and you have a taste for ironic humor, you might prefer to use this anti-smoking video (below) as a model. It features dancing big tobacco execs and bloody surgical scenes set to carnival music. This video targets the teen audience in particular, capitalizing on their distaste for insincerity. Teens are often undecided about their religious beliefs, so they are also an important audience for videos marketing the theory of evolution.
Granted, the creationism issue is trickier in many ways than the smoking issue; it’s more abstract, and it involves the touchy subject of religion. But if you feel strongly about battling the intellectual threat of unfettered Biblical literalism, I dare you to make your own creative, unforgettable anti-creationist video that lives up to the anti-smoking lobby efforts, and post it on YouTube.
I have one last comment today on the topic of marketing, creationism and cigarettes. All successful anti-smoking advertisements are created using a basic marketing principle: people don’t change their minds just because you tell them to change. To quote thetruth.com: “Tell someone not to do something and they will. Don’t read the next sentence. See what we mean? We’re not here to tell people not to smoke, because, well, it doesn’t work.”
For me, that was the essence of Patrick Donadio’s message for us scientists on the matter of creationism. Don’t tell people not to smoke, because it doesn’t work. But with some marketing savvy, you can fight Big Creationism and win.
- Marketing for Scientists is a blog, a Facebook group, a series of workshops, and a book published by Island Press, meant to help scientists build the careers they want and lift science to its proper place in society. Because sometimes, unlocking the mysteries of the universe just isn't enough.