When the Nazis took France in June of 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt found himself holding the unpopular opinion that the United States would have to participate in the war, even though the battlefield remained across the Atlantic Ocean. Around that time, Gallup pollsters found that about 90 percent of Americans felt otherwise, opposing war with Germany.
Burdened by an economy still battered by the Great Depression, some of Roosevelt’s advisers weighed fiscal measures such as tax increases and enforced savings programs to finance the war.
Others, including Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., advocated for a kind of militarized propaganda effort that would combine spreading wartime information to boost morale and issuing national defense bonds, essentially enlisting the American public to fund the war effort.
Morgenthau’s strategy won the day, and the first war bond was purchased for $100 by the president himself in 1940. What followed was the most robust public service campaign in our nation’s history. It was so effective and so powerful that it raised $185.7 billion in bonds during the war years, covering over half of the United States’ total war expenses.
Now the world faces another existential threat, a crisis reconfirmed this week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that raises new alarms about climate change. The report found that even the most optimistic scenarios would result in more than 1 billion people being exposed to life-threatening heat waves, floods, and other catastrophic weather events and hundreds of millions more struggling to obtain water.
Yet just as Roosevelt faced a public hesitant to act against what seemed like a far-off threat, significant numbers of Americans still do not fully grasp the effects of climate change on their lives and the livelihoods of their communities if nations don’t act in unison now. In 2020, only 43 percent of Americans believed that climate change would impact them on a personal level, according to the Yale Program for Climate Change Communications. A more recent Gallup poll tells a similar story — 56 percent of Republican respondents say they don’t believe global warming effects will start happening during their lifetimes. Yet as the most recent IPCC report makes clear, catastrophic floods, wildfires, storms, and sea level rise are already happening.
The result of such blind ignorance is that we won’t get to the “strong, rapid, and sustained” carbon emission reductions that IPCC scientists confirm is our only escape hatch.
The war bonds campaign offers the best example of a public service campaign in the last century at the scale needed to increase public awareness. We should learn from its success and duplicate this effort.
In 1942, Roosevelt’s White House created the War Advertising Council to oversee the War Bonds campaign. The ad council also oversaw additional wartime campaigns such as “Women in War Time,” which recruited two million women into the workforce to support the war economy.
Together, the Treasury and the War Advertising Council deployed marketing strategies that are still effective today. Spokespeople like Hollywood starlet Judy Garland sold bonds on national theme tours. Donald Duck promoted them on news shows, and Norman Rockwell donated his Four Freedoms paintings to be used on war posters. The president himself educated the public about war bonds during his fireside chats.
The war bonds campaign demonstrates that an effective marketing and branding effort about climate change resists the impulse to be overly adversarial or apocalyptic, mistakes that climate change ad campaigns often make. A much more effective strategy would be to use proactive messaging with distinct calls to action. A slogan like “Change Power, Not Freedom” could be a rallying cry for folks who hold freedom as the highest American ideal. Elected officials, influencers, and activists could work together and incentivize consumers to invest in community solar, electric vehicles and heat pumps.
Imagine someone like Matthew McConaughey using his non-partisan platform to promote a vehicle buyback program for transportation electrification, or an artist like Kehinde Wiley donating his art to be used as a symbol of the climate change fight. Recently, Representative Sean Casten of Illinois referenced hip-hopper Megan Thee Stallion and singer Fergie during a speech on the House floor about clean energy initiatives being pushed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Except in rare circumstances, public service campaigns often suffer from a lack of funding. One exception was the 1998 “Truth” campaign in Florida. Then-governor Lawton Chiles earmarked $200 million from an $11 billion settlement with the tobacco industry to support a public awareness effort aimed at curbing teenage smoking rates. Studies show that it reduced smoking rates among middle school students by 40 percent in just two years.
During World War II, Archibald MacLeish, a poet and director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures, said, “The principal battleground of this war is not the South Pacific. It is not the Middle East. It is not England, or Norway, or the Russian Steppes. It is American opinion.” This is as true today for defeating climate change as it was then for winning World War II.
Graham Piercey is a master’s degree student at Vermont Law School.