Show and Tell: Advertising Tools and Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Jul

Memories

I regard it as a waste of time to think only of selling: one forgets one’s art and exaggerates one’s value. Camille Pissarro

I wish that television would stop selling our hatred of ourselves, and start seducing us with our love of ourselves. Dan Harmon

If government were a product, selling it would be illegal. P. J. O’Rourke

This was “experts” week at the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF), organized under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council.  The task of the HLPF is “follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs) with an emphasis on six of the goals (such as health, gender, oceans), as well as on voluntary national reviews of SDG progress.

The global backdrop for this HLPF cried out for clarity and inspiration. For  instance, many readers of this blog will have seen footage of an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware breaking off from Antarctica, an event that might not have been the direct result of climate change per se but which portends additional ice-shelf cleavage with ever-greater risks to the rising (and desalinization) of our seas.

Moreover, the Security Council gathered this week to assess the ever-deteriorating situation in Yemen, now characterized by almost unimaginable rates of famine and cholera.  As is often the case in the Council, Uruguay issued its thoughtful warning, looking permanent Council members (the UK and US) in the eye while reminding them that it is their weapons sales that are enabling so much of the Yemeni carnage.

And of course, there are the ubiquitous nuclear provocations emanating from North Korea (DPRK) with resulting (and also provocative) military exercises from the US and South Korea, a scenario as likely to spark new conflict as to calm its prospects.

The “experts’ week” of the High Level Political Forum largely dodged such security and climate concerns – a well-attended, early-morning side event on the human rights dimensions of development was a relatively rare exception.  Instead, other helpful sessions called attention to gaps in data and access to scientific research relevant to sustainable development. Moreover, some of the “spotlight” on development funding added excellent value, especially that which sought to understand the nature and challenges of corporate finance in the overall development agenda.  What was missing for us is analysis of the implications from the vast sums already being pledged by state and non-state entities to clean up horrific messes in the aftermath of the devastating climate disasters and armed conflicts raging worldwide.  The more funding is required for such victim response, the less is available to build the health, nutrition, and gender architecture, let alone for poverty alleviation and infrastructure development.

Despite a spate of human-made crises testing the limits of human response, there was in evidence a fair amount of “salesmanship” at this HLPF “experts’ week.” We are used to some of this at UN Headquarters – endless events promising audience “dialogue” but which are really opportunities for UN agencies and carefully selected NGOs to promote their relevance to the governments on which they largely depend for funding.  These podium-focused, statement-driven, speaker-overloaded events, which largely obscure what is often considerable audience expertise, often add more sales potential than policy significance.  Indeed, much of this HLPF “experts week” was more like “show and tell” and less like an open-ended conversation about relevant tools, needs and challenges with diverse peer stakeholders.

The nature of “the sale” has always been an interest of mine, in part because I’m so inept at it.  Unlike some people who scroll through commercials to get to the programs, I will spend occasional evenings doing the opposite – focusing on commercials instead of programs and discovering the following:

  • There are some incredibly clever people working in advertising; in an age that is suspicious of organized religion and has largely abandoned psychology, advertisers seem to have forged the principle path to our souls, convincing most of us that, in essence, “we are what we own.“
  • Where advertisers target young people, and they do quite often, they clearly see them mostly as distracted narcissists. According to commercials, young people do little but party, drive hot cars on deserted urban streets, stare at their phones and go on holidays; all with ample quantities of time and money.  Aside from their consumption patters, they apparently aren’t to be taken seriously any more than poor, disabled or indigenous people are to be taken seriously.
  • The essence of advertising remains as it has been – describing/inventing a problem for which a particular product becomes a kind of “savior.” Sadly, the problems that advertisers address seem as petty and distracting as ever, especially problematic given the global crises clamoring for attention.
  • Advertisers don’t worry about whether their products are actually needed or particularly relevant to the lives they touch. And they certainly don’t concern themselves with the implications of acquisition for emotional or fiscal health, let alone for the ability to obtain more essential goods and services.  Once advertisers convince you to purchase, the job is done.
  • Advertisers keep tight control over their narrative. There is little doubt expressed, no shortage of enthusiasm for the brand, no contrariness emanating from the “real people” who increasingly populate commercials.  With few exceptions (and there are some) advertisers only acknowledge competitors to expose their flaws, their limitations, none of which apparently pertain to the product they themselves are offering.

Given this overview, it might seem impertinent to call attention to the “salesmanship” of something as important as the HLPF, but the reference is not completely without merit.  Most HLPF events were, indeed, tightly managed with emphasis on what we’re doing more than on what we’ve neglected.   Discussions on specific tools too often obscured the contributions of the larger sector and even more often neglected discussion of the tools we still need and have yet to develop.  And while some states (Belgium, Finland, Argentina and others) tried to open up space for youth and persons with disabilities, grumblings in the hallways regarding the absence in sessions of the people living in poverty, indigenous persons and other “marginal” stakeholders were frequent.

And through all of this, as our interns would likely attest, there was a decided lack of bold inspiration, a clear show of unscripted determination that we can get through this deep valley  of deprivation if only we can find ways  to commit more and pull together better, to include more and listen better.  (Indeed, this was the way in which the HLPF was least like a sales event.)

Starting Monday, a steady stream of ministers will come to the UN to report on progress on national implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.  These ministers will surely tell us what they’re doing to achieve SDG targets or, more to the point, what they want us to believe they are doing.  What we are sure to hear less about (and need to hear more) is which of their commitments are actually taking root, actually mobilizing public participation, actually impacting public attitudes and the behaviors that flow from them.

And many UN agencies and NGOs will be following these potential funders with interest, anxious to convince officials that what these stakeholders are doing is good (which it certainly is) and sufficient (which it certainly is not).  Indeed, we are collectively losing ground in several critical areas, including with regard to the security arrangements that can provide a predictable and rights-based development environment, and the climate arrangements that can possibly keep us under the 2 degree threshold on which our future upon this planet likely depends.

With all due deference to the many, mostly useful policy tools and suggestions on display at the HLPF, and while endorsing the importance of preserving the indivisibility of the SDGs, we must not take our eye off these larger threats.  If we fail on climate and security, we risk an endless string of gender-balanced armed conflicts; technologically advanced cities under water; sustainable farms “baked to a crisp;” and educated children who find themselves graduating without a viable, livable planet to inherit.

This would be the ultimate, tragic irony for our global system: so many billions having been spent to promote community well-being and political and economic inclusion on a planet that at times seems on its way to becoming a war-ravaged hot-house. Unless we can together find ways to inspire deeper commitments to peace and climate health, including among our development and other UN sales partners, this is one irony that we might not be around long enough to assess.

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