Sunday, January 15, 2023

Voluntarism and deregulation

Rachel S. Gross recently reviewed Jeffrey K. Stine's Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America's Public Lands (Smithsonian 2021) for H-Environment. Gross writes:

In the 1980s, Hollywood tough guy Charles Bronson took his vigilante reputation to the world of public service. Bronson was a perfect poster boy for the Ronald Reagan-era PR effort, Take Pride in America. In TV ads, Bronson, along with fellow actors Clint Eastwood and Louis Gossert Jr., decried “bad guys who beat up on trees” and encouraged listeners to take voluntary action to help solve the problem (p. 62). The Take Pride ads were a curious take on the pressing environmental issues of the day. To be sure, vandalism did occur but to name that as a central environmental issue and to use Bronson’s image to convey pride in land as a masculine and patriotic concern were deflections. Just what these ads were a distraction from is the question that Jeffrey K. Stine addresses in Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America’s Public Lands. Stine argues that the Take Pride in America campaign, which pushed voluntarism as a solution for the issues plaguing public lands, was a reflection of the conservative ideology that government was a problem rather than part of a solution. The Take Pride in America program suggested “that the enlightened self-interest of the private sector offered the ideal approach to public lands stewardship” (p. 53).


Stine faces a challenge in that his book is an analysis of a government program that in the author’s own assessment was ultimately ineffectual and unimportant. In addition to showing the program’s lack of effectiveness, Stine also makes the case for why such an analysis is necessary. For Stine, the office was a failure but a revealing one, in that its longevity reveals a political history of conservative approach to environmental (lack of) action. Namely, Take Pride in America and the agenda of voluntarism it pushed via a succession of Republican administrations reflect a partisan divide on environmental policy, where conservatives aimed to deflect attention away from how they underfunded federal land agencies.

The book is most successful in revealing the links between professional advertisers, mostly in the Ad Council, and the tactics for promotion in the Take Pride initiative, namely, the puppet/mascot era and then the celebrity era. These are fun, often visually focused, analyses of who became the faces of voluntarism and what exactly they were pushing. The message, whether it was Smokey Bear or Clint Eastwood speaking, was personal responsibility. The goal was to create a “bad guy” to distract from underfunding. Take Pride was ultimately innocuous and had little impact because it was always designed to be a simple PR campaign, a distraction. Stine’s title, Green Persuasion, points to how the program was a kind of greenwashing, hand-waving effort at assuaging public concern, a “public relations cover for its efforts to advance economic development on public lands and to reduce federal environmental protections” (p. 119). 

No comments:

Post a Comment