How the “Power of Cute” is saving the planet

“Awww look at that adorable Quiver Tree, don’t you want to help save him?”

…is not a phrase we commonly hear when talking about conservation efforts. We’re all familiar with the photo of a polar bear floating away on a melting sheet of ice, or the adorable tree frog with the big buggy eyes – but what about the less-than-attractive species? How does the “cute” factor affect the way these flagship species of conservation are used in social marketing?

Let’s examine PhotoArk, a project by National Geographic that is looking to document every single species in captivity. The goal of the project is to help protect them for future generations to appreciate, through the use of stunning photography. Looking at samples of the campaign below, there is one key thing missing – plants! This can be attributed to what is called “emotional marketing”. Emotional marketing can be defined as the practice of building brands that appeal directly to a consumer’s emotional state, needs and aspirations. Emotional marketing can be a powerful tool for conservation and environmental initiatives, as it is a part of our biology to be more emotionally attached to animals than plants. According to science, humans only experience four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger. Rather than following the usual standards of social marketing (such as those laid out by community-based social marketing expert Doug McKenzie-Mohr), the marketing technique is completely reliant on the perception of these animals to the public’s emotions.




That being said, general concepts of social marketing are still used, but in a less obvious way. For example, there is a strong presence of consistency throughout the campaign. The request is always the same – appreciate the existence of these animals during your lifetime, and donate money for our conservation efforts. This also serves as a way of holding the audience accountable for their actions, some may even argue it incites guilt. A simple message on their website reads “I want people to care, to fall in love, and to take action”. Reading this, you feel compelled to do something, even if just for the fear of seeming careless, again playing into the emotional state of the campaign. Another general concept from McKenzie-Mohr that was incorporated in this campaign was effective messaging and communication. The website uses simple, yet captivating information to grab the reader’s attention. In the image below, we see a photo of a tortoise, and caption depicting the size of the population that remains. The photo appeals to a certain audience, one that does not want to be bombarded with negative and complicated messaging; this is discussed further in the paragraph below. Furthermore, the message is coming from a credible source. National Geographic is a very well known and respected organization, so there is already a sense of positive brand awareness. Finally, the message framing is clear and concise. The picture emphasizes the losses that have occurred in the population already, and communicates the urgency of the issue.



Let’s take a look at the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) as it related to PhotoArk, and the significant of their advertisements’ cute factor. This model, shown below, uses the Stages of Change to integrate the most powerful principles and processes of change. While some campaigns might better integrate McKenzie-Mohr’s principles and encourage a direct action, this campaign seems to be targeted at an audience who is in the pre-contemplation phase. They are unaware of the pros of changing their behaviours, and tend to avoid reading or talking about their high-risk behaviours. Therefore, rather than bombarding these individuals with words and actions they need to take, the campaign simply seeks to raise their awareness on the consequences of their high-risk behaviours. In this case, that high-risk behaviour would be unsustainable activity, which contributes to the decline in the animal’s population. Ideally, the audience would see one of these advertisements, and be compelled to move into the contemplation stage. From here, they would become aware of the cons of their behaviour, and be inspired to take action and make a behavioural change.


Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine Stages of Change effects, and I was unable to find any information on the success of the “cute” factor specifically relating to PhotoArk, but there are other success stories. Recently, there have been articles surfacing in the news about the growing population of tigers – something that hasn’t happened since 1900. While scientists attribute this in part to partnerships between the public and government, it’s also in part to conservation efforts much like PhotoArk.

Did you enjoy the photos? Check out @Joelsartore on Instagram for more!

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Bianca Salive is a recent graduate from the Environment and Business program at the University of Waterloo in Canada. In the iconic words of her Twitter bio, she is a “Nomadic Treehugger. Biophiliac. Welcome to the mind of an eco-maniac.” Follow her on Twitter.


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