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One reality of global climate change is that human behaviors bear responsibility. The advertising industry also bears substantial responsibility for this ongoing tragedy of climate change. Consumption—and the consistent persuasive messages that push society to consume—plays a significant role in causing the planet's climate and environmental degradation. This study examines whether leaders in the advertising industry recognize the problems of climate change, and assesses their perceptions of their own ability as well as the ability of the industry to address climate change. Results of a sample of industry leaders show that more than three-fourths of respondents see climate change as a serious problem. These leaders also perceive fairly high levels of self-efficacy as well as industry efficacy in addressing the problem. Leaders suggest that education of clients, consumers, and agency personnel can not only encourage courageous messaging around climate change, but can also build stronger relationships as well.


advertising agencies, climate change, corporate social responsibility, efficacy, leadership, societal problems

A Brief Introduction from the Authors.
Video 1

A Brief Introduction from the Authors.

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Fig. 1. Plant-for-the-Planet Ad to Encourage Donations to Plant Trees.
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Fig. 1.

Plant-for-the-Planet Ad to Encourage Donations to Plant Trees.1

The vast preponderance of evidence, based on years of research conducted by a wide array of different investigators at many institutions, clearly indicates that global climate change is real, it is caused largely by human activities, and the need to take action is urgent.

—Alan I. Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the journal Science2

Many scientists have examined the preponderance of evidence surrounding climate change and concluded that human behaviors are largely responsible for this age of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, rapidly melting glaciers and ice caps, and marked shifts in species range.3

The advertising industry bears substantial responsibility for this ongoing tragedy of climate change, especially accelerated changes over the last century of industrialization as more products and more advertising for those products became the norm. We must face the reality that consumption—and the consistent persuasive messages that push society to consume—plays a significant role in contributing to the planet's climate and environmental degradation. It is certainly true that many professional fields share responsibility; manufacturing, transportation, chemical engineering, as examples, all bear the burden of adding to the problem. Ironically, even as it contributes to the problem, the advertising profession is uniquely positioned to mitigate the issue by providing leadership and compelling persuasion about what the industry and society can do to address climate issues going forward.

It is, to be sure, an interesting situation. At its best, the advertising profession is home to brilliant creative thinkers and business practitioners, those people who craft remarkable cultural statements, corporate vision, and compelling messages for the 21st century. This talent has been used primarily in service to nonprofit organizations; Figure 1 shows one example of advertisement by Leagas Delaney in Hamburg, Germany, that encourages individuals to donate to Plant-for-the-Planet, a nonprofit started by a child with a goal of planting trees around the world to combat the effects of climate change.4 The last decade has witnessed a rise in brands standing up for causes built on the mission and values of the company, of agencies doing work for social justice and social change as part of brand advocacy.5 These brands, including Cheerios, Honey Maid, Yoplait, Patagonia, Airbnb, 84 Lumber, Modelo, Colgate, and Audi, have crafted messages that show that advertising can be culturally transformative as well as an economic driver. With ad spending in the United States expected to exceed $200 billion in 2017,6 even a small percentage of message spending committed to social change messages can have a huge impact.

The purpose of this study is to examine how advertising industry leaders specifically view the problem of climate change as well as their own abilities to solve problems of climate change. We also examine the concept of industry efficacy and the role of collective action to address climate change and mitigation. We find evidence that industry leaders view themselves as having a relatively high level of efficacy to solve climate problems. Similarly, they see the idea industry—advertising and brand agencies throughout the country—as having the ability to solve climate problems as well. Key challenges to enacting change and possible solutions are also investigated.

Literature Review

In Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman offer an economist's view of these complex issues: "What precisely are the costs of unchecked climate change? What's known, what's unknown, what's unknowable? And where does what we don't know lead us?"7 Evidence of the effects of climate change are seen in the declining quality of life in the near present and in the future: declines in crop yields, evidence of coral bleaching and coastal flooding, and destabilized seasons that confuse and disrupt the ecosystems of bees, flowering plants, fish, and migratory birds, and other natural processes.8 Increases in droughts, wildfires, and hurricane activities affect community infrastructure such as highways and power systems, human health, and even human life. Unless we address climate issues, the effects of our economic and social infrastructures will reach a dangerous level that will be difficult to reverse. These are knowable effects.

While these climate-related changes will affect all humans on the planet, they will disproportionately affect lower income populations via housing and food insecurity issues, as well as water scarcity and extreme temperatures.9 As noted by US Secretary of State John Kerry in a December 2014 speech in Lima, Peru, on climate issues: "We're still on a course leading to tragedy."10

Scientific fact also lays out the cause of these changes; 97% of publishing climate scientists agree that by engaging in activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and nitrogen-based pesticide use, humans are contributing to recent global warming.11 This is the same percentage as the number of doctors who agree that smoking causes cancer. One great unknown becomes how we—all humanity or any appropriate subset, such as advertisers—will address the causes of climate change and attempt to mitigate them in order to stop further environmental destabilization. One challenge is that climate change is often seen as an "invisible" problem,12 as much of the available evidence does not appear dramatically overnight, notwithstanding recent images of wildfire, flooding, and rising sea levels. However, as scientific consensus continues to raise concerns about the effects of humans on the climate, the opportunity grows for the advertising industry to raise awareness and action about climate issues on a local, national, and global basis.

The Advertising Industry Ecosystem

Because of the role of consumption in the carbon emission process and the role of persuasive messaging in the process of consumption, the advertising ecosystem—people who work for advertising and branding agencies, as well as individuals involved in advertising education and professional groups—have true impact on the viability of the planet in the next fifty years.

To be sure, advertising's essential purpose is to drive consumption, even as good people and brands do thoughtful advertising and work conscientiously. However, like any other ecosystem existing on the planet, the advertising industry must recognize that addressing the realities of a changing climate is in the collective best interests of present and future generations. Is the industry prepared? What can and should the advertising industry and its large ecosystem of educators, organizations, and support providers do to reconcile this reality? Today all firms, including advertising agencies, must achieve appropriate profits while doing what society perceives is morally fair.13 In addition, all firms must address a triple bottom line that addresses their contributions to financial, environmental, and human performance.14 But to what degree are these suggestions integrated into the industry today?

One sign that a robust collaborative effort is needed can be seen in former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's June 2016 address to advertising professionals attending Cannes, the premiere advertising awards ceremony. That year, Cannes brought to the world stage the top officers of six holding companies: WPP, Dentsu (via videolink), Havas, the Interpublic Group of Companies, Omnicom Group, and the Publicis Groupe. Holding companies are conglomerates of agencies held by one corporate governing board and bound by directorship of that board. Thus, this gathering represented hundreds of agencies, studios, media channels, and production affiliates, as well as hundreds of thousands of professionals around the world. Secretary-General Ban asked these leaders to support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 15-year, pro-planet action plan with 17 clear, sustainable development goals:

"This is Cannes—so I have come with a pitch," Mr. Ban said. "I know all of you have tremendous power to shape opinions. You are master storytellers. And I want you to help us create the biggest campaign ever for humanity."15

The request and subsequent collaborative initiative was the first of its kind. Each holding company committed to a particular goal from the Sustainable Development Goals: WPP to gender equality, Dentsu to health, IPG to access to clean drinking water, Omnicom to education, Publicis to food, and Havas to climate change. The Havas Group website offers their collaborative mission in addressing environmental concerns:

With headquarters in London, New York City, Paris and Sydney, our global practice offers a long list of actions for climate clients, from media-training teams of experts, scientists and key personnel to developing thought-provoking and timely op-eds and blog posts that position an individual or group as a leading authority.

Havas' mission statement makes it clear that their commitment to the environment is a value shared by all their offices, and that their commitment extends beyond the traditional boundaries of agency expertise.

The advertising ecosystem represents a range of individuals with unique roles in addressing climate change. These individuals work for agencies on behalf of clients, the holding companies that provide an organizational structure for advertising agencies, and for professional groups that set standards for advertising and award exceptional work. Each will be discussed in turn.

Agencies and the work

It is instructive to identify which agencies or organizations connect to climate change initiatives beyond just creating a "green" campaign. A green advertising campaign can address the relationship between a product or service and the environment (like Burt's Bees does, as seen in Figure 2), or promote an environmentally-friendly lifestyle (like Tide Coldwater does), or present a corporate image of environmental responsibility (like Patagonia does).16 In addition, many campaigns over the last decade are products of the types of campaigns used by organizations like Greenpeace: visually interesting posters or videos created as craft and award show entries, most of which become ultimately forgettable and demonstrably not useful, rather than being work crafted as true agents of change.

Fig. 2. Burt's Bees Tout Their Sustainable Practices.
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Fig. 2.

Burt's Bees Tout Their Sustainable Practices.17

Specialty agencies have tackled climate and environmental themes to varying degrees of success and longevity: EnviroMedia in Austin; Matter Unlimited in New York; and EcoAlign in Washington, DC, are examples of smaller, environmentally focused agencies. Matter Unlimited's mission is "to amplify the power of brands and organizations to drive growth and positive change in the world simultaneously."18 Their work for the brand Goodie highlights the importance of providing healthy and sustainable food delivered in sustainable packaging; this is important not only for the consumer of the Goodie food box, but also for patrons of the Los Angeles Food Bank—Goodie matches every purchase with a donation to hungry families (Figures 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. The Goodie Website Explains What You Are Buying.
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Fig. 3.

The Goodie Website Explains What You Are Buying.19

Fig. 4. Many of the Messages on Show Corporate Responsibility.
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Fig. 4.

Many of the Messages on Show Corporate Responsibility.

Leadership in the environmental advertising space is highly important. Alex Bogusky, former principal and the creative force behind agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), gave up mainstream advertising for the activist message-making of Common, Fearless, and GALEWiLL Design in Boulder, Colorado. Advertising veterans Kirk Souder and Sebastian Buck recently joined forces to begin Enso, a California-based agency dedicated to bringing value to people by shepherding the environment and culture. These agencies all do interesting work with smaller capacities; the founders and agency operatives are dedicated and knowledgeable, often considering themselves to be activists rather than advertisers, as witnessed by personal statements on websites and social media. The advertising agency Enso, for example, launched the Shared Mission Summit immediately after the 2016 Presidential election. The summit brought together key leaders from business, science, technology, civic, faith groups, nonprofit, and government to discuss climate change to develop cross-sector solutions.

The Shared Mission Hopes to Change the Status Quo.
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The Shared Mission Hopes to Change the Status Quo.20

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Holding companies as agency representatives

Holding companies espouse varying degrees of environmental knowledge and action. WPP, a British-based international advertising and public relations holding company, organizes a detailed report around sustainability among all its units (ad agencies and PR firms), speaking to their own carbon footprint and addressing their "work, marketing standards, employment, supply chain, and social investment."21 In a 2013 report, WPP's CEO Sir Martin Sorrell offered a strong endorsement for the industry and his company tackling the climate change challenge:

"Yet the big problems that our society faces—those of inequality, unemployment, health crises, water scarcity and climate change—remain far from being resolved. While technology holds the key to tackling some of these problems, it is also exacerbating others. Demographic shifts and the exponential growth of the global middle class look set to further strain our planet's limited resources. I am often asked what the role of business should be in tackling such complex issues. My view is that it has a critical role to play. Indeed these challenges cannot be addressed without the participation of global business, as a driver of growth and creator of jobs and a force for innovation. In partnership with governments and civil society, business will create many of the solutions we will need over the coming decades. It is in the interests of business to play its full part. It must do so if it wants to secure future supplies of natural resources, to build skills and to help create strong communities that enable business to prosper."22

Sorrell underscores the importance of global businesses in developing social justice solutions in order to be sure of nothing less than the continuation of the planet and the people who call it home. He ends by writing that WPP will help brands embed sustainability into their life cycle, providing the specialist knowledge and skills to do so. WPP's most recent sustainability report shows that this is not merely lip service, as ad spending for clients who engaged with the agency on sustainability issues is almost $2 billion.23 One campaign, "So Long Old World," focuses on highlighting the social purpose commitments of several Unilever brands. In the following spot, Dove, Domestos, and Persil celebrate that they do more than sell soap. Dove has questioned beauty standards, Domestos has improved sanitation in rural areas, and Persil has partnered with UNICEF in educating children. Another campaign for Vodafone focused on that brand's involvement in rainwater harvesting projects in India.

Unilever's "So Long Old World" Ad Highlights the Social Purpose Commitments of Its Brands.
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Unilever's "So Long Old World" Ad Highlights the Social Purpose Commitments of Its Brands.24

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Other holding companies take less of a stand on the issue of climate change. The Interpublic Group (IPG) of companies (including agencies McCann Worldgroup, Lowe and Partners, and FCB) provides the Global Reporting Initiative that offers assessments and recommendations for Interpublic agencies to follow concerning building efficiently (for example, LEED-Certified offices), lowering paper usage, and riding bikes and carpooling.25 IPG, along with WPP, Omnicom, and several other agencies are part of Common Ground, a cross-industry initiative to support the United Nation's Sustainable Development goals. Omnicom supports sustainability in its Corporate Social Responsibility report26 showcasing energy reduction initiatives at various member agencies (energy-efficient lighting and green building); agency stories about reducing carbon footprint in Sri Lanka and Hong Kong; and preferred vendors and collaborations.

Omnicom has also worked with major clients in promoting initiatives such as bringing sustainable lighting to Pakistan (an initiative from PepsiCo) and improving global agroforestry (an initiative from Timberland). Havas, a large holding company features their commitment to the environment on their global website27 and their agency Havas Worldwide developed the "TckTckTck" campaign for the Global Humanitarian Forum. The campaign is the unifying symbol for a number of organizations, including a coalition of leading non-governmental organizations who campaigned for a fair and ambitious global agreement on climate change to be reached at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference. The "tck tck tck" symbol communicated a sense of urgency as time ticked down to the start of the 2009 conference, as well as addressing individual and corporate responsibility to take action to tackle climate change. The campaign engaged over 10 million people to support the Copenhagen Climate accord talks, and this engagement led to continuing support for global climate change initiatives.28

Havas' "TckTckTck" Ad Communicates the Urgency of Tackling Climate Change.
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Havas' "TckTckTck" Ad Communicates the Urgency of Tackling Climate Change.29

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Many holding companies, such as MDC Partners (made up of agencies including Anomaly, CP+B, and 72andSunny), list nothing about sustainability, climate change, or green activism, even though many of their agencies are doing campaign work in the area. Most notable is 72andSunny, an agency that has developed sustainability work for Yoplait and Seventh Generation, and keeps a Director of Brand Citizenship as part of their leadership. The agency is notable for its subtle use of sustainability messages that avoid making consumers feel guilty; in Video 5, Seventh Generation's natural ingredients are contrasted with a harsh "blue goo." These ads use sustainability as one of many "reasons why" to buy a product.

Maya Rudolph, in an Ad for Seventh Generation, Uses Humor to Convey Messages of Sustainability.
Video 5

Maya Rudolph, in an Ad for Seventh Generation, Uses Humor to Convey Messages of Sustainability.30

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Professional Organizations

Organizations representing the professional framework of the industry have little to share about climate, green, or sustainability issues. An examination of the website for the American Association of Advertising Agencies showed that policy priorities are listed as centering on advertising deductibility, anti-piracy, children's advertising, consumer data privacy, patent trolling, and state advertising issues.31 Diversity issues are also addressed. "Green" is discussed in the perspective of understanding green consumers and what marketing leverage points can be found within the green movement; green marketing is a path to profits and nothing more. Similarly, another industry trade association, the American Advertising Federation,32 has no mention of green or climate initiatives, but showcases a strong concern for diversity and college student talent development.

Professional organizations also sponsor a range of industry awards

The One Club for Creativity, a leading creativity award program and a professional education organization, awards a Green Pencil for the most environmentally-minded advertisement, but that award is not generally seen as creatively significant as others, such as the Golden Pencil or the Addy. There is little mention at events such as the annual Creative Week panels, a New York City-based industry event that is well attended by advertising agents, students, and clients. A new category for the Creative Week awards ceremony celebrates Corporate Social Responsibility, recognizing that a shift in corporate culture from profit-driven brand messages to mission-driven brand messages exists. The almost century-old Art Director's Club33 celebrates design and art direction of the industry; it has nothing on the website or in its opinion blog about climate change or sustainability issues as they relate to design or art direction.

Ban Ki-moon's request has begun to be embraced by the industry, yet wholehearted engagement has yet to be seen. The 2018 Cannes Lions will judge for the first time Sustainable Development Goals which has five categories, one of which is doing good for the planet—the others cover people, peace, prosperity, and partnership.34 Is it a lack of interest among advertising agencies, or a lack of confidence that they can indeed affect such change?


Efficacy is the ability to produce a desired result. Self-efficacy refers to one's belief in his or her capacity to execute the behaviors necessary to reach goals.35 Self-efficacy measures one's confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment. The concept of self-efficacy has been used to study knowledge of the environment,36 green purchasing,37 and other pro-environmental behaviors.38

Climate change is a particularly challenging problem because many consumers need to expand their knowledge about the climate in order to understand climate change.39 This knowledge is often limited to dramatic images of melting polar ice caps and starving polar bears because consumers tend to avoid more scientifically relevant information. Indeed, climate change is rarely seen as having high levels of salience in public opinion polls.40 To complicate the matter, political ideology is a polarizing factor in understanding and interpreting climate issues, as noted in a 2016 Pew Research survey, "The Politics of Climate."41

The amount of information is not the problem: Global media coverage of climate change has been growing steadily since 1996.42 The knowledge-deficit model, a social science model describing science literacy and the public understanding of science, suggests that with all the discourse surrounding climate change in society today, people should display increased amounts of personal efficacy and responsibility for global warming and climate change, and be more attuned to the risk of climate change.43 However, the political discourse in the United States still presents climate change as an area of debate and conflict, suggesting that personal efficacy may not be as strong as it should be.

For example, a study of several leading newspapers in the United States found that The Wall Street Journal was least likely to discuss the impacts of and threat posed by climate change. The Wall Street Journal was most likely to suggest that mitigating climate change could result in negative economic implications. The same study found that articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and USA Today rarely connected climate impacts to the actions to address climate change (such as reduction of carbon emissions); this lack of connection could make consumers feel that they did not have the ability to address climate change on their own.44 Arguably, global warming information might not heighten consumers' sense of efficacy. Instead, the coverage might make them assess climate change as a topic on which experts disagree, and as a result consumers may believe climate change has minimal impact on their lives.45

In addition, efficacy might be affected because, while the public has the ability to devote time and resources to understanding more complex issues, this often does not occur because of more immediate concerns that will rank higher on consumers' priority list such as crime and economic concerns.46 Increasing the salience of climate change is one way to address this. However, if the press cannot increase salience, perhaps the advertising industry can?

Beyond individual efficacy, though, is a notion that we term "industry efficacy": the ability of a specific industry to produce a desired result or solve a problem. As so clearly stated by former UN Secretary-General Ban, throughout the history of advertising, strategists and creatives have solved complex business problems for their clients, so the advertising industry's credibility as problem solvers should be unquestionable. Emphasizing a collective (rather than individual) responsibility for climate change may be more effective at changing climate-related behaviors and attitudes.47 We have found that using certain priming techniques to signal collective action (such as the use of the word we or us instead of you) could increase people's salience of climate change and their intent to undertake climate friendly behaviors. WPP and Martin Sorrel's efforts in creating messages with an eye toward placing climate change at the forefront of industry decisions illustrates some attempts at industry efficacy.

Industry efficacy in addressing the problem of climate change calls for doing creative work around ideas rather than products and services: the solution lies not only in convincing consumers to purchase environmentally friendly products,48 but in also convincing citizens to consider climate impacts throughout their daily activities. Awardwinning creative director and strategist Tim Geoghegan posted a message on the popular creative blog, I Have an Idea, in 2011:

The ad industry is quickly evolving into a new industry. It will be one that won't offer only the limited menu of services that's attributed to it today. I'm not sure if this new industry should even be called advertising anymore, as the term itself can be an albatross to innovation. But whatever the name is, it'll be even more exciting and productive than in its current incarnation.49

Geoghegan's beliefs that the ad industry is expanding its brief to offer only traditional messages reflects the increase in the number of brands operating in a landscape of innovation and invention in a creative economy. Advertising agencies work more like creative studios transforming innovative ideas into valuable content. Examples include Droga5's work for The Tap Project, (an effort to bring awareness and funds to the global water crisis,) and Creative Artists Agency Marketing's work for Chipotle that raises awareness of the importance of small independent farms in our food chain. Both of these efforts involve film, games, documentaries, books, music and recordings, and unique digital experiences, releasing branded messages from their traditional tether to advertising.

The Tap Project Raises Money for Clean Water.
Video 6

The Tap Project Raises Money for Clean Water.50

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The marketing of ideas over brand attributes and benefits in new and creative ways requires agencies and other marketing organizations to reimagine how they produce innovative and influential work. Efforts like The Tap Project (see Video 6) and Chipotle's small farmer campaign demand a bold recasting of how and for what purpose advertising happens. Industry people must believe that they have the ability to solve problems, both individually and at an industry level, and can identify both the challenges and the opportunities to address.

Trade magazines such as Adweek regularly identify millennials in the ad industry—generally thought of as individuals born between 1984 and 2000—as those with heightened social conscience compared to older workers, and do believe they are in a position to change the world.51 They tend to be guided by moral principles and want their agencies to stand for something more than growing consumerism. But do their bosses—the Boomers and Gen Xers who are in positions of power—feel the same way? To better understand whether the advertising industry is able to "walk the walk," as suggested by leaders such as Martin Sorrel, this study asks five research questions:

  1. 1. Are advertising leaders concerned about climate change?

  2. 2. Do advertising leaders believe brands have a responsibility to address climate change?

  3. 3. Do advertising leaders (such as directors of creative, account planning, strategy, and media) perceive themselves as having the ability to address climate change?

  4. 4. Do advertising leaders see that the industry has the tools to address climate change?

  5. 5. What solutions do leaders see, and what challenges are connected with solving the problem?


An online survey developed using the Qualtrics platform and directed to individuals working in the advertising industry was crafted to assess perceptions of self- and industry efficacy in relation to climate change. The survey asked a series of questions to tap into perceptions of several constructs detailed below (see Table 1 for a list of all items).

Table 1. Survey Scale Items to Measure Advertising Leaders' Concerns about and Efficacy Related to Climate Change. a Respondents indicated their level of agreement to these statements using a scale where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. b Cronbach's alpha = .89 c Cronbach's alpha = .76 d Cronbach's alpha = .78
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Table 1.

Survey Scale Items to Measure Advertising Leaders' Concerns about and Efficacy Related to Climate Change.

a Respondents indicated their level of agreement to these statements using a scale where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree.

b Cronbach's alpha = .89

c Cronbach's alpha = .76

d Cronbach's alpha = .78

Concern toward global warming: Items from Kellstedt's Climate Change Risk Assessment scale52 allows respondents to indicate their level of agreement to statements about global warming and climate change. These statements ask for one's agreement that in the next 25 years, climate change would have a noticeably negative impact on one's health, one's economic/financial situation, and in the environment where one lives; agreement to perceptions of evidence of climate change are also assessed.

Perceived self-efficacy: Kellstedt's Personal Efficacy for Global Warming scale is a three-item measure53 that estimates the perceived ability of respondents to affect climate change outcomes and induce others to behave in ways that mitigate human sources of climate change, as well as whether respondents accept climate change as a human responsibility.

Perceived industry efficacy: This new scale assesses how respondents viewed the perceived ability of the advertising industry to address the same issues in Kellstedt's Personal Efficacy scale. This scale adapted the existing self-efficacy scale and framed it as the ability of the advertising industry to address climate change issues (see Table 1).

Perceptions of brand responsibility: Three questions were asked about the roles of brands in addressing climate change, adapted from Dunlap and Van Liere's New Environmental Paradigm, a scale which assesses whether respondents are aware of people's potential harm on the environment.54

In addition, we developed an open-ended question that asked, "What, if anything, do you and your team need to address climate change issues?" in order to identify industry needs in building industry efficacy. Demographic and industry employment information, including job title, was collected at the end of the study to identify whether agency leadership held attitudes that were similar to, or different from, other agency workers.

Data for this study were collected via social media and snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is a method used to obtain research and knowledge, from extended associations, through previous acquaintances. Snowball sampling is a useful tool for building networks and increasing the number of participants because individuals refer other people in both their personal and professional networks to the study. Snowball sampling is appropriate to use when members of a population are hidden, difficult to locate, and closely connected, often through their shared interests.55 As both authors are active in both the academy and the industry, and have more than 60 years of experience between us, our organized social networks are rich with members of the advertising industry who could not only respond to a survey about efficacy and climate change, but they could also share the survey with others in order to increase the number of responses.


A total of 323 responses were received over the course of two weeks in 2016. From these responses, we eliminated all responses from individuals not involved in the advertising industry. We also focused on those individuals with job titles that indicated leadership status, as these positions were the focus of our research questions. Advertising leaders have the ability to influence corporate culture, model appropriate environmental behavior, and increase their own and their employee's self-efficacy, resulting in increased industry efficacy. These job titles included Owner, President, Partner, Chief Creative Officer, Executive Creative Director, Creative Director, Executive Producer, Head of Production, Media Director, and Strategy Director; this list was shared with other advertising faculty members who agreed the titles represented agency leadership.

A total of 53 individuals indicate job titles of this level. Respondents' age ranged from 28 to 61, with an average of 44, median of 42, and mode of 38. About two-thirds of respondents identified as male and one-third identified as female. Ninety percent had earned at least a bachelor's degree. The majority (85%) identified as Caucasian, 10% as Asian, 2% as African-American, 2% as Latino, and 1% as other. More than 90% of respondents reported an annual household income of over $90,000, with over 60% reporting an annual income of over $150,000. All had worked in the industry for more than five years, and all lived in the United States.

Are advertising leaders concerned about climate change?

Respondents evaluated four statements about Concern with Climate Change (see Table 1) on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. Responses to the four items were summed to create an overall composite score. As shown in Table 2, the average score of the Concern with Climate Change Scale among respondents was 17.16 (ranging from 4 to 20, with the higher the number, the higher the degree of concern). For the four statements about climate change, 75% somewhat or strongly agreed with all four concerns. To answer Research Question 1, then, there appears to be a fairly high level of concern with climate change among these advertising leaders.

Table 2. Leadership Attitudes. Scale for A, E, F: 4 to 20 Scale for B, C, D: 1 to 5
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Table 2.

Leadership Attitudes.

Scale for A, E, F: 4 to 20

Scale for B, C, D: 1 to 5

Do advertising leaders believe brands have a responsibility to address climate change?

Table 2 displays responses to the three statements about brands' responsibility toward climate change. The mean level of agreement (on a scale where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree) for the statement that "Brands have an important role in engaging audiences about climate change" was 4.20 (SD=1.07). The mean level of agreement for the statement "Brands have a responsibility to address consumptions' relationship to climate change" had a mean score of 4.27 (SD=1) and the mean level of agreement for the statement "Brands do not do enough to engage audiences about climate change" was 4.41 (SD=0.82). For each statement, more than 80% of respondents either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement. To answer Research Question 2, then, results show that agency leaders feel brands have a responsibility in regard to addressing climate change as there was a relatively high level of agreement with each of these statements.

Do advertising leaders perceive themselves as having self-efficacy in terms of climate change?

Respondents evaluated three statements about self-efficacy (see Table 1) on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. Responses to the three statements were summed to create an overall self-efficacy score that ranged from 8 to 15. Table 2 indicates that the average score was 12.65 (SD=2.04). A total of 75% of respondents indicated that they somewhat or strongly agreed to all three statements. The answer to Research Question 3 is that there is a fairly high level of self-efficacy regarding climate change.

Do advertising leaders see industry efficacy in terms of climate change?

Respondents evaluated three statements about industry efficacy (see Table 1) on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree. Responses to the three statements were summed to create an overall self-efficacy score that ranged from 7 to 15. Table 2 indicates that the average score was 12.72 (SD=2.20). A total of 72% of respondents indicated that they somewhat or fully agreed to all three statements. To answer Research Question 4, then, perceived industry efficacy regarding climate change appears to be fairly strong.

What solutions do leaders see, and what challenges are connected with solving the problem?

About one-third of the agency leaders completed the open-ended question about what can be done and what is needed for their agencies to address climate change. From these comments, three themes emerged: the need for clearer information about how science evaluates, confirms, and tries to address climate change; the need for incentives to encourage climate-change related work; and the need for leadership around climate change issues.

The first theme was information: Respondents mentioned the vast availability of information (or misinformation) that is available and suggested that the current advertising environment has an impact on how information is assessed. Not only are people challenged to determine what is true and what is false in what they read, people also often cannot identify what is a paid message and what is not, particularly in today's digital environment where content sponsored by a brand can be confused with pure editorial content. One creative director requested credible sources:

With all the documented cases of companies buying "expert" opinions on the matter, it's hard to know what is real and what is really paid for. It would great to know who knows what they're actually talking about with respect to scientific evidence and proof.

An art director indicated:

"Any work we do to put good information out there is a starting point."

Respondents also mentioned that they and their clients needed to be better informed, and mentioned that this topic can be overwhelming. One agency account director responded: "Info regarding global warming seems inconsistent. I don't know what to believe." An account director mentioned that seeing "more examples of success by others" could be helpful in understanding options to address climate change in brand communication.

A second theme revolved around incentives to encourage clients and agencies to address climate change. This reflects in some ways the last element of the information section above, which would be sharing—and celebrating—good work that tackles this challenging subject. However, respondents noted that corporations needed to find business incentives to make a change, and that the profit motive is important for all to understand relative to the complex issues. One planning director wrote:

Clients need a strategic reason that makes sense logistically and economically for them to even think about attaching their brand to any cause, let alone environmental causes. From my experience, many are willing to address big issues, as long as it makes sense.

This idea of having climate be a good fit with the client's business is of prime importance. Several respondents indicated that a lack of a clear connection between the brand and the cause results in many people ignoring advertising messages, and importantly, not engaging in understanding more about climate change. This requires a depth of understanding about brands' obligations to address climate issues by both agency and client leadership in order to make this connection salient and relevant to stakeholders.

The final theme had to do with the need for leadership. First, leadership can encourage and support pro-bono work surrounding climate change issues. Second, industry leadership can create a stronger sense of the actions that people take to actually make a difference, communicated both internally and externally. As one creative director wrote:

Individual choices as well as taking stronger stances about working with clients who seek to make advances on climate change. In addition, any briefs we receive are opportunities to help our clients take definite stances in support of greater action.

Several respondents noted the challenge of "red tape" that prevents agencies from having meaningful discussions with the actual change agents on the client side, and clients from having meaningful discussions with consumers. In response to the question "What do you need to address this?" one planning director answered simply: "Politically fearless clients. Unfortunately, all clients are fearful of alienating any potential target member with a message that is divisive."


This study investigated the degree to which industry leaders feel advertising leaders and the advertising industry can address climate issues. Increasingly, agencies are challenged to be "authentic": to be genuine, original, expert, honest, and transparent in all aspects of their work.56 Many people, especially those in the Millennial generational cohort, see themselves as compassionate and courageous and want to see such values reflected in the brands they buy.57 Committing to addressing climate change can connect brands and advertisers with consumers in new and powerful ways.

As our study reveals, agency leaders are concerned about climate change, and believe they and the advertising industry have the ability to address the problem. Perhaps more importantly, they believe that brands have an obligation to address the problem, given brands' history of creating consumption that contributes to climate change. With that in mind, we present several recommendations for agencies and clients.

Build agency and client relationships centered on value for the planet by further developing purposeful brand and agency leadership. Every consumer may not care about the environment, but every consumer will have values that could be part of a brand's value system as well. To facilitate change, the lessons from brands already enacting change suggest that we leverage courage to identify key brand values, tell the truth, build strong brands, and inspire ourselves and the broad collection of audiences to which advertising speaks. Advertising agencies can lead this charge by educating clients on how building brands in this way can lead to deeper brand-consumer relationships through a set of values that will last over time.58

Involve university advertising programs in the education of advertising leaders on the facts and realities of climate change so they can educate their employees, clients, and consumers. Advertising educators train the next generation of advertising professionals, and the curriculum should be expanded beyond copywriting, design, and media planning to address advertising's responsibility as a social actor. While most advertising programs offer a course in ethics, a single course often cannot provide a depth of information that will empower students to enact change when they enter the industry. Advertising programs at the university level should offer courses and experiences on climate change issues, sustainability, greenwashing (i.e. misleading environmental messages), and "outside-the-box" problem-solving and innovative thinking for brands and issues. Over the career spans of our students in the next fifty years, social problems will be prominent themes of concern for brands, agencies, and the consumers fueling their success. To teach the next generation of professionals, using lessons from a radically interdisciplinary set of perspectives—such as urban planning and policy, environmental studies, business ethics, and green chemistry—will build strong programs that defy old definitions of what advertising is and can be. Those programs which resist interdisciplinarity or social concerns will risk producing graduates without an innovative, socially responsible, and solutions-focused mindset. The programs that build strong platforms for solving problems responsibly for people and brands in a global economy will produce leaders. Better yet, those professionals from forward-thinking programs will form the core of a movement to address these issues. In simple terms, advertising education holds the key to facilitating real change in the profession.

Likewise, trade publications and awards shows that repeat worn-out tropes about climate change discourse, such as the sad polar bear and hopeful children in a field of flowers, will risk becoming tired reflections of the stagnant part of the agency field. Publications that thoughtfully raise the profile of agencies doing innovative work will help the industry be more provocative and useful. The One Club for Creativity sponsors two prestigious awards shows—The One Show and The Art Director's Show—that celebrate the best industry work with lavish displays and awards parties. The One Club awards, along with similar awards at the Cannes Lions festival rouse the industry by awarding and promoting courageous content that explores climate change issues or showcases branded messaging that works to solve problems for people, such as for The Tap Project and Patagonia. The influence of such publications and award shows is immense; by working to shed light on climate change issues in compelling ways, they could assume even more of a leadership role in how the industry evolves.

To facilitate change, this strategy calls for advertising education, publications, and professional organizations to influence the industry with courageous content and talent more prepared to help a range of individuals understand how they can enact change in regard to climate issues, thereby creating movement and shift in the industry.

Leverage courage to make bold messages, strong brands, and inspiring messages. Many industry leaders responding to this study articulated the need for clients to be as committed to the climate as the advertising industry appears to be. The advertising industry needs to pay increased attention to brand leaders currently committed to the climate, such as Jill Dumain, Director of Environmental Strategy for Patagonia. Dumain works to build a brand dedicated to environmental sustainability, internally and externally. Patagonia's Common Threads Initiative, a project to repair clothing instead of replacing it, represents a new way to view the brand-consumer relationship. Patagonia sends vans around the country where consumers can bring in clothing—even from competitors—to have things like broken zippers and torn seams repaired. In this way, customers get extended usage out of their products. The company states: "We design and sell things made to last and be useful. But we ask our customers not to buy from us what you don't need or can't really use. Everything we make—everything anyone makes—costs the planet more than it gives back."59 These leaders can inspire not only those working in advertising agencies, but also on the client side, to create messages that can address climate issues. Patagonia, for example, now creates and shares stories that celebrate the old clothes that have stories of their own, as shown in the video for Worn Wear.

Worn Wear Video Shows How Patagonia Promotes the Responsible Economy, The Idea that the Planet is as Important as (If Not More Important Than) Profits.
Video 7

Worn Wear Video Shows How Patagonia Promotes the Responsible Economy, The Idea that the Planet is as Important as (If Not More Important Than) Profits.60

Click to view video

Worn Wear is one way Patagonia exhibits courage with their commitment to what they call the Responsible Economy, which shows that the planet is as important as (if not more important than) profits. And, indeed, even their advertising expresses this belief. For example, an ad that ran in the New York Times suggested consumers limit their own consumption by instructing us, "Don't buy this jacket." The full-page ad featured the jacket on half the page, with the bold headline above the jacket and explanatory copy beneath that outlined the principles of the Common Threads initiative—"Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle, Reimagine"—as a strategy to limit the carbon output from the production of goods across the planet. It was a strategic statement taken straight from their core beliefs of environmentalism, using business to inspire, doing no harm, and offering excellent workmanship. The free downloadable eBook offering essays about "The Responsible Economy" invites their brand advocates to share the belief system. Even as the company has committed to more expensive and eco-friendly production practices, their profits have tripled over the past decade.61 The brand is successful, the advertising is honest and inspirational, and the message gives us more than the need to buy something. As evidence, their "1% for the Planet" initiative, which donates 1% of sales to environmental nonprofits, had contributions totaling $5.5 million in 2012 and increasing to $7.1 million in 2016, reflecting a strong growth in sales over that time.62

Fig. 5. Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" Ad Sells Environmental Responsibility instead of Clothing.
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Fig. 5.

Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" Ad Sells Environmental Responsibility instead of Clothing.63

Patagonia Urges Reducing, Repairing, and Recycling over New Purchases.
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Patagonia Urges Reducing, Repairing, and Recycling over New Purchases.64

Click to view video

Since Patagonia made its brave stance in 2011, we've seen similar types of value messages from clothing and outdoor gear company REI, with its #OptOutside campaign encouraging people not to shop on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, known for its importance in the retail economy), but instead to spend time outdoors with people and American Express, with its support Small Business Saturday, the Saturday after Thanksgiving when people are encouraged to shop at small local businesses instead of big box stores.

Fig. 6. REI Used Twitter to Announce Its #OptOutside Ad Initiative, Which Signaled the Outdoor Retailer's Shuttering Of Its Doors on Black Friday to Allow Its Employees and Customers to Enjoy Nature Instead of Shopping on the Day after Thanksgiving.
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Fig. 6.

REI Used Twitter to Announce Its #OptOutside Ad Initiative, Which Signaled the Outdoor Retailer's Shuttering Of Its Doors on Black Friday to Allow Its Employees and Customers to Enjoy Nature Instead of Shopping on the Day after Thanksgiving.65

American Express Created a New Shopping Holiday to Aid the Economy.
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American Express Created a New Shopping Holiday to Aid the Economy.66

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And it doesn't stop with the environment: we've seen brands promote diversity and speak out against domestic violence. For example, after the CEO of the pasta brand Barilla made homophobic statements, several other pasta brands created messages in support of diversity. Beer brand Tecate ran a television ad in Mexico that stood against domestic violence.

Fig. 7. Bertolli Pasta Ad Celebrates Diversity in Response to Barilla.
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Fig. 7.

Bertolli Pasta Ad Celebrates Diversity in Response to Barilla.67

Fig. 8. Buitoni Ad Celebrates Diversity in Response to Barilla.
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Fig. 8.

Buitoni Ad Celebrates Diversity in Response to Barilla.68

Tecate Advocates against Violence toward Women.
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Tecate Advocates against Violence toward Women.69

Click to view video

Returning to the topic of climate change, these examples of exceptional brand messaging can directly (and indirectly) address important problems of society today. Directly, these messages can promote quality products that are intentionally better for customers (and in some cases for the environment), because there is no need for new purchases if the product comes from a brand of quality. These values of integrity affect the amount of carbon emissions in various ways; they connect to using and buying less while still building a brand. Indirectly, such honesty and transparency is an exemplar for what the profession should be. Such actions have also been shown to increase consumer trust in brands,70 brand value in terms of competitive advantage,71 and firm value in terms of profits.72

The fact that two companies leading this charge—Patagonia and REI—both cater to affluent customers who probably already have some level of concern about the environment does give pause. However, these campaigns provide proof-of-concept that messages promoting pro-social values can build brands. These campaigns show thought leadership that can model appropriate activities for other brands moving forward. If agencies and brands took the risk of building strategies to provide further leadership in addressing climate change issues, the entire profession is made stronger, giving individuals and agency teams permission to solve problems that affect us all. As successful brands in a highly visible category, they offer direction for engaging influential audiences on lifestyle choices, a basic tenet of much of the advertising work created for mainstream brand categories.

The traditional agency and client working relationship and incentive structure is ripe for reinvention as well. While there is nothing wrong with agencies identifying key consumer insights with the goal of selling more client products, the work of the brands mentioned throughout this article show that the industry can do better. How can the process be reimagined to include creative heroism and social impact? Los Angeles-based advertising agency 72andSunny recently announced an initiative to include Brand Citizenship—the practice of creating value for society and building businesses at the same time—into every strategic creative brief.73 Rather than keep brand responsibility and change agentry siloed in corporate social responsibility add-ons and microsites, brand citizenship—how the brand lives in culture, behaves as good citizen, and facilitates action—will be embedded into each brand's strategic brief. 72andSunny founder and CEO John Boiler described the concept of Brand Citizenship when he "emphasized the need for marketers to make long-term commitments to such programs after identifying sustainable products and services that fit with their brands."74 One example is their ad for the reusable water bottle brand Bobble, which provided a satirical look at single-use water bottles. With this model of integrated brand engagement, purposeful and responsible activism eventually becomes part of the brand's DNA, giving permission to engage consumers and competitors in addressing social issues. In this case, climate challenges become an integral part of the strategic discussion rather than a tack-on consideration after the fact.

72andSunny's Bobble Ad Uses Satire to Encourage Viewers to Rethink the Use of Single-Use Plastics, Such as Disposable Water Bottles.
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72andSunny's Bobble Ad Uses Satire to Encourage Viewers to Rethink the Use of Single-Use Plastics, Such as Disposable Water Bottles.75

Click to view video

72andSunny's idea to build citizenship and responsibility into their creative and strategic process takes brave and generous thinking, readiness to fail, and a dedication to something larger than the sales cycle. Brands that partner in this endeavor will have the advantage of brand identity with calls-to-action built in, where brands and customers can both feel a degree of ownership with pro-social values, be it climate change, diversity, or some other issue. Similarly, the founder of the advertising agency Enso, Kirk Souder, recently wrote a treatise entitled "Advertising: The Sequel,"76 explaining that this change in advertisers' and brands' purpose has arrived: "Our briefs now are not focusing on the communication problem to be solved, but the core societal problem to be addressed."77

It may be that embedding citizenship into the brief is the first step to changes, such as naming a Chief Climate Officer, or looking for specific talent who bring skills in environmental and sustainability activism. The incremental steps of changing the process are based on reimagining perspective, process, and talent. To facilitate change, brands need to courageously interrupt the traditional processes of advertising strategy and creative development with purpose, using changes designed to reinvent how business is done.


Advertising strategist Kofi Amoo-Gottfried recently examined the current status of the advertising industry and argued that agencies today spend their time creating a brand's "intermediary measures like awareness, engagement, brand appeal and impressions," and as a result were being relegated to "taking orders instead of adding value,"78 referring to messages that could create long-term relationships between brands and customers. Amoo-Gottfried wrote generally about how the advertising industry could again be inventive and effective, and his ideas relate directly to addressing larger societal problems of climate change:

The only way back is to go back to the beginning. To elevate and venerate problems. Maybe even more than we celebrate solutions. For that to happen, everything needs to change. Talent-wise, this shift will require a new breed of multidisciplinary thinkers. These will be people not defined by functional departments or their role in the process, but by their ability to build strategy and create around a single transformational question that's designed to get to the heart of the business problem, and to express that problem as a shift in consumer behavior rather than just an attitudinal shift: What behavior do you want to change? Without the clarity of necessity, there's no invention. And without invention, there's no value.79

With this study, we show both the necessity to address climate change and that many advertising leaders are ready to participate in addressing it. We recognize that agency personnel need better information and leadership support to help employees understand that they also have the ability to change behaviors—not only behaviors to personally make the planet healthier, but for the industry to make it healthier, too. Respondents agreed that brands have an important role in addressing climate change by engaging audiences about the problem, and to address consumption's relationship to climate change. There was widespread agreement that brands do not do enough, and many leaders in the industry are ready to take on the challenge.

The scholarship of climate science involves interdisciplinary research from the natural sciences, policy and planning, and sociology, and draws from several lenses: economic, political, and geopolitical. Assessing climate change through the social lens, through topics of mitigation, social change, communication, and public engagement, is often mentioned by climate scientists as crucial to the ongoing solution to the complex problems of climate change. More research and thought leadership from advertising scholars is needed to explore historical, cultural, scientific, and ethical issues related to the profession and its role in causing and mitigating the effects of climate change. As a profession, the advertising industry and its ecosystem—people who work for agencies on behalf of holding companies, as well as professional groups and academic programs—need to play a leading role in the heroic work of changing industry process and perspective. Advertising scholars can play their part, too, by helping make objective information about social issues available to advertising leadership and by showcasing best practices in pro-social advertisement to students, consumers, and the industry at large.

Kim Sheehan

Kim Sheehan is Professor and Director of the Honors Program at the University of Oregon. She studies advertising, social issues, and ethics, and has published in leading advertising and marketing journals.

Deborah Morrison

Deborah Morrison is the Chambers Distinguished Professor of Advertising at the University of Oregon. She is a Grandmaster of the Art Directors Club of New York and has won numerous awards for both teaching and research and has judged creative competitions around the world.


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23. Ibid.

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31. Advertising deductibility addresses issues surrounding the amount of ad spending that clients can deduct on taxes. Anti-piracy examines ways to prevent client work from appearing on websites that distribute illegally obtained content. Children's advertising issues involve the time, place, and manner of ads directed to children. Consumer data privacy addresses brands' and digital advertisings' data collection and usage. Patent trolling is when individuals or companies attempt to obtain and use patents to license or litigate as opposed to protect intellectual property. State advertising issues involve any attempts by states to limit advertising, such as bans against channels (e.g. billboards) or bans against messages (e.g. promoting casinos). See

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46. Ibid.

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52. Used in Kellstedt et al., "Personal Efficacy."

53. Ibid.

54. Used in Riley E. Dunlap and Kent D. Van Liere, "The '"New Environmental Pparadigm'," in The Journal of Environmental Education 9, no. 4 (1978): 10-19.

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76. Kirk Souder, "Advertising: The Sequel," Medium, May 15, 2016, accessed March 13, 2018,

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79. Ibid.

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