Climate sceptic ad backfires
The Heartland Institute billboard.
It is either a brilliantly antagonistic marketing ploy or, more likely, a remarkable misjudgment.
One of the world's most prominent climate sceptic organisations is facing widespread condemnation for a proposed advertising campaign likening people who believe greenhouse gases pose a threat to mass murderers and tyrants.
But the Heartland Institute says the billboard brought an extra 10,000 people to a website promoting a coming climate sceptic conference despite being withdrawn within 24 hours.
The institute's digital billboard ad featured a mugshot of Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" who killed three people and injured dozens in a 17-year mail bombing campaign. Beside the photo was the text: "I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?"
In a statement coinciding with the billboard, the organisation said it planned other ads linking Charles Manson, Fidel Castro and possibly Osama bin Laden to acceptance of climate science. It wanted to make the point that "believing in global warming was not 'mainstream', smart or sophisticated", but actually "more than a little nutty".
"What these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the 'mainstream' media, and liberal politicians say about global warming," it said.
The reaction was swift.
Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who opposes laws to limit greenhouse gas emissions, threatened to cancel his appearance at the conference if the ads were not withdrawn. Through a spokeswoman, he said: “this type of name calling did more to distract from the issues at hand than advance a positive dialogue".
Canadian writer Donna Lamframboise — author of a critical book on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — withdrew from the conference, saying her reputation had been harmed. "Being collateral damage in someone else's ongoing marketing experiments isn't my idea of a good time," she said in a blog post.
And economist and climate sceptic Ross McKitrick called the ad "fallacious, juvenile and inflammatory".
But prominent Australian sceptic Bob Carter, an adjunct professor at Townsville's James Cook University and an adviser to the Heartland Institute, said that while he would have cautioned against such a provocative billboard if asked, he now felt that advice would have been wrong.
He said the reaction to the ad from the "the usual 'liberal' media sources" had been "amazing, immediate and over-the-top", and that he would still speak at the conference.
"The complete failure of the liberal media to apprise their own hypocrisy on the issue is simply amazing," he told The Age.
"The mainstream media resolutely ignore the many press releases from Heartland ... that are concerned with sober assessments of the science of climate change, are perfectly happy to bandy around words like deniers, criminals and worse as applied to independent scientists, yet have a fainting fit when someone applies that technique to their own beliefs."
Heartland Institute president Joe Bast was unrepentant. He withdrew the advertisement, which he described as an experiment and said cost just $US200, but did not apologise.
"The ad was rigorously accurate. The person pictured has publicly made statements about global warming that are indistinguishable from Al Gore's statements," he said in a statement.
"The ad was taken down quickly after it proved its point: the radical environmentalists get hysterical when global skeptics dare to use the same tactics they use."
The criticism of the ad follows a backlash against the institute after confidential documents were made public listing hundreds of sponsors and strategies to promote climate scepticism.
The documents were obtained deceptively by US scientist and environmental activist Peter Gleick. General Motors and Diageo, one of the world's largest beverage companies, subsequently announced they would no longer fund the institute.
Australian climate campaigner, David Spratt, said the billboard appeared to have been planned to provoke and garner publicity, but had backfired.
"There is a maxim that all publicity is good publicity, and given that Heartland have effectively withdrawn the ad but said they are not apologising for what they did, it is hard to conclude that it is an accident or misjudgment," he said.
"[But] they are losing some corporate support because of their action and have lost speakers to the conference.
"Even people who are sympathetic to their viewpoint are appalled and dissociating themselves. I think it is a public relations disaster for the climate denial industry."