World Earth Day is Wednesday, April 22. The holiday, which spurs activists and regular people to consider their impact on the environment, lobby for policies which could help curb global climate change, and push their friends and neighbors to consider daily steps toward conservation, is celebrated by close to 200 countries each year.
It is also a tale of triumphant marketing.
Proposed by peace activist John McConnell in 1969, Earth Day was perfectly positioned. Environmentalism was just beginning to enter the public consciousness (see: the 1971 “Keep America Beautiful” ad featuring Iron Eyes Cody, which launched on Earth Day just two years later), and the United States needed a cauterizing event to bring it all together. It was also placed perfectly; it was in the spring, when public enthusiasm for the outdoors is blooming alongside the first wildflowers.
“Earth Day 1970 capitalized on the emerging consciousness, channeling the energy of the anti-war protest movement and putting environmental concerns front and center,” explains the organization’s website.
It was neither as radical as the flower-children of the 1960s, nor was it as hard-lined as the oil barons. It was palatable, approachable – and bipartisan. Earth Day, the organization explains, “achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders.”
Environmental groups of all walks began to get involved, spreading the message of Earth Day because they believed in it, and because it was easy to bend to fit whatever they were most passionate about. Those looking to stop the growing hole in the ozone layer could focus on emissions. Groups whose mission was to clean up their local waterways or other polluted areas could rally days of service.
Earth Day was a marketing success because it was both broad and specific. The idea of Earth Day is inspirational, but the actual bar to entry was extremely flexible.
In 1990, the holiday was brought to a global audience, which allowed for the spread of environmental ideals, and a kind of international feeling of community. Earth Day became a time when world leaders came together to discuss how they were cooperating to tackle huge issues that expanded well beyond the borders of their own nations. 20 years later, as climate change became a top-of-mind issue, Earth Day became a way for consumers to express their upset at governments and ruling bodies who weren’t doing enough to curb carbon emissions, to create better systems of transportation and shipping.
According to the Earth Day organization, “Earth Day broadens the base of support for environmental programs, rekindles public commitment and builds community activism around the world through a broad range of events and activities.”
Big enough to encompass whatever it is you love about the planet, but time-boxed enough (it’s just one day) to make it seem feasible, this now-45 year campaign has held up to the test of time because of the way it was created, packaged, and sold. None of which are a bad thing; non-profits and especially activist groups could learn from the private sector.
Marketing, though it’s often tinged with a feeling of untrustworthiness, just means getting your message out there – which is the goal of most non-profit work.
The original organizers of Earth Day could never have predicted electric cars, “An Inconvenient Truth,” or even the phrase “global climate change,” but when those realities came along, Earth Day was ready. The mission was still necessary, even as the focuses and needs of the consumers changed.
Today, we still celebrate Earth Day with days of service and action, letter-writing campaigns, and online petitions. The audience has changed (and so has the political focus), but it remains largely the same campaign it was in the years following Woodstock: One day for one cause that almost anyone can get behind.