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MIXED MEDIA | Books | Web | Videos


Ironic, Irreverent, and Effective

By Reed McManus

If a media campaign for an environmental cause is going to capture people's attention, it needs "idiot logic." That's the irreverent term Chuck Cardillo and his partners at Underground Advertising in San Francisco use when crafting a simple headline that will pull readers into one of their ads for nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible companies. Underground's trademark: a factual nugget, presented ironically, that zeroes in on the disconnect between what people innately believe and what's really happening.

"We're not trying to save all the ancient redwood forests," a newspaper ad for the Headwaters Forest campaign announces, above a photo of a spectacular grove. "96 percent of them are already gone." Another ad, this one for the Rainforest Action Network's old-growth forests campaign, asks, "Oldest living things on Earth, or tomorrow's toilet paper?"

"Even kids know that you don't take a tree that takes six people to wrap their arms around and turn it into toilet paper," says Peter Walbridge, Underground's co-creative director. Because each of these messages about old-growth logging telegraphs a salient and provocative fact, uncommitted readers are more likely to dive in and investigate the lengthier, more detailed explanation on the bottom third of the page. "Our job is to make it easy for people to care," Cardillo says. "We don't bludgeon. We let the readers make the final connection and draw their own conclusion."

And just like commercial advertising for detergent or automobiles, success is in the sale. If Underground's ad hits its mark, readers will get involved in the issue by writing a letter, visiting a Web site, or calling the ever-present toll-free number that concludes the pitch.

It's no surprise that Underground's edgy style can be compared to commercial advertising. Most everyone on the small staff, who work out of trendy offices on a converted pier a stone's throw from San Francisco's financial district, is a refugee from the high-flying corporate world. "After years of persuading people to buy things," Underground's Web site declares, "we decided it was time to encourage people to save things." The agency got its start in 1994 when Cardillo and Walbridge, successful freelancers for large corporate accounts at major ad agencies, volunteered their services to the Environmental Protection Information Center, primary organizer in the effort to protect Northern California's Headwaters Forest. Like many environmental groups, financially strapped EPIC was sure of its cause but not sure how to convey its message. Cardillo and Walbridge presented the organization with seven possible ads. EPIC was so delighted they decided to use three of them.

Underground must tailor its work to the realities of the nonprofit world. While commercial agencies don't usually have to convince their clients that advertising is important, this agency must often educate nonprofits about the need for professional-caliber communications. And they must work within the inevitably small budgets of nonprofit groups, though these days Underground's clients often include charitable foundations, which tend to factor advertising budgets into their campaigns. Along with Rainforest Action Network and the Headwaters Forest Coalition (which includes the Sierra Club), Underground counts among its clients Greenpeace, the Sea Turtle Restoration Fund, the Pesticide Action Network, Mother Jones magazine, and Bay Area Rapid Transit.

One day in October the staff are sitting at their indigo iMacs, busily putting the finishing touches on a newspaper ad aimed at readers in Alaska, to counter criticism of environmentalists following a successful lawsuit that restricts fishing in Steller sea lion habitat (see "Sea of Uncertainty," page 48). Environmental groups want the public to know that it was not greens who forced the judge's decision, but federal bureaucrats who failed to address the issue early on. Underground is able to distill the complicated debate to a simple statement: "These aren't Steller sea lions," the ad declares above an image of the contested pinnipeds, "They're scapegoats."

Underground and a handful of other agencies around the country provide nonprofit organizations the resources they need to get their message heard in an age when people are assaulted with some 3,000 pitches every day. "We need to break through the clutter," says Lori Warren, Underground's director of strategic planning. The agency's staff likes to portray its clients' efforts as a struggle against Goliath, boldly calling Underground "David's advertising agency." That sort of boast could cause jaded readers to roll their eyes. But as long as Underground can bring humor, recognition, and results to environmental and other social causes, they deserve the biggest slingshot they can get.

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