A Legendary Adman Gives A New Voice to Environmentalists

Credit: Michael Buckner / Getty Images For Fast Company

Lee Clow is an advertising legend. He created the Energizer Bunny and the Taco Bell Chihuahua for starters, but he is probably best known for his work with Apple, including co-creating the award-winning commercial "1984" and directing the company’s "Think Different" campaign. Clow, who now serves as Chairman and Director of Media Arts for advertising giant TBWA Worldwide, just unveiled a new initiative that may represent his biggest challenge yet — to give nature a voice.

Conservation International signed Clow for a radical environmental ad campaign, "Nature is Speaking" that consists of short films voiced by some of the biggest names in Hollywood including Penélope Cruz, Harrison Ford, Edward Norton, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Ian Somerhalder, and Kevin Spacey.

Clow and Peter Seligmann, the head of Conservation International, worked together to brainstorm the biggest challenges faced by nature — rather than humanity — and came up with a list of the most negatively impacted elements, including the ocean, fresh water, rainforest, redwood forest, soil, and coral reef. Clow turned each element of nature into characters that express their misgivings about the way humans are treating the Earth.

The tone is somewhat dark — "I have fed species greater than you, and I have starved species greater than you," says Julia Roberts as Mother Nature — but it makes Clow and Conservation International’s point clear: Nature doesn’t need people, people need nature. Taken as a whole, the campaign promises to change the way millions think about nature — and how environmental non-profits think about their message. We recently spoke to Clow about his work at Apple, this new campaign, and modern-day environmentalism.

Actors giving voice to entities like the soil and the rainforest is pretty out-there. How did it all start?
Laurene Jobs — she's been part of Conservation International for years — asked me about a year ago. They're a bunch of scientists and really brainy people who are doing amazing things with sustainability and responsibility and production and management and working with countries and companies, but trying to attract an audience beyond the people who are already committed and involved in this kind of stuff was really a challenge. I looked at all their materials — Peter Seligmann [Co-founder and CEO of Conservation International] gave me a document he called his manifesto and it was long and complicated, but in there I found a little bit that seemed like it would hit home with everybody, as opposed to just scientists or just passionate conservationists. It was the notion that nature has been here for 4.5 billions years — evolving and kind of going through whatever evolution the planet required. And human beings have been here for just a sliver of that time, you know, a nanosecond, and have managed to make a bigger mess than anybody. So we landed on this notion that while so many of the conservation movements are trying to save whales and snails and trees we should really be trying to save ourselves. We ended up with this idea that nature doesn't really need people, but people need nature.

How did you get from there to Julia Roberts?
We thought about how the concept could be made most clear. This force called nature has been here for 4 billion years and has seen everything — how would it observe and talk about human beings on the planet, and how we're doing and how we're getting along? I sat down with Harrison Ford, who has been part of Conservation International for years, and talked about what if nature had a voice? I said to him, if we did this, you know, we'd need some really strong words to come from nature. So we tried writing a script for the ocean and Harrision recorded it with a lot of passion. That set us about finding other people to do the same. I was actually a little worried about Julia Roberts voicing Mother Nature. She's an amazing actress, but she's kind of America's sweetheart, she's such a darling; would she be strong enough? But she did it very well. And I just loved how she got into it — "my woods, my rivers" — she got very possessive about her nature and I thought she was great.


Was it your intention to rebrand environmentalism?
There's this systemic problem in our culture that everything is politicized, everything is polarized, everything is at odds with the other, and it seems like nobody can step up and figure out how to find solutions. Intelligent conversation about anything — about any important subject, be it education or politics or conservation — can't exist because every voice comes from their extreme side of the conversation and basically pits themselves against the other side. And when you come at problems with this kind of extreme agenda, a politicized agenda, it's very hard to find the common-sense center of the problem, the real center of the conversation. The idea of trying to live everyday with a sense of responsibility to the planet, whether you're a company or a country or a person, doesn't seem that radical — it seems so sensible. But if you're perched up in your extreme posture, you're not going to come to this sensible, logical center that makes it evident that this should be on everybody's agenda — to behave as environmentally responsibly as you can, and to support the companies that are behaving as responsibly as it can.

Our idea isn't about right or left, one country versus another, one company versus the planet. It's about human beings trying to figure out how to solve a problem — one we're going to have to solve to sustain human life on the planet.

How is this different from selling an Apple product?
Because of the way this message has been approached out there, it's a little bit hard to sell. Climate change is one of those things you don't bring up at a cocktail party if you're got a mixed group because you're going to end up in some kind of a combative conversation. As opposed to Apple, where we had the incredible luxury of products that changed the world — amazing new products — and having people fall in love with them. This one is almost working from behind. Trying to get the conversation back to neutral before we can start convincing people to of sign up for what we're selling.

The medium has changed since you created Apple's "1984" commercial that launched the Mac. These days, do you need a viral video or can the message speak for itself?
It needs to be out in the culture, it needs to be shared, and viewed, and talked about. And that's the amazing thing about the way that media has evolved. It's very much because of Apple that everyone has devices in their pocket, in their bag, that can connect with information, and with media, at any point in time. So having the message in as many forms as we can, and in as many media platforms as we can, and hopefully the audience is interested enough and likes it enough that they share it is the goal. It's the goal for every brand now — it has to understand that everything is media. Everything is part of the conservation, or it's not. You know if it's not part of the conversation you're dead. It's not like the old days where it was just a matter of money. It's too easy to ignore media if you aren't interested. So you better make it interesting. You better make it smart. You better make it creative.