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Cuteness and Green Design for a Brighter, Cuter Future
Guest Editorial by Nicole Peterson

“Because whales are so cute!” was the reply I heard a Greenpeace activist give when asked why she joined the environmental advocacy group. Cuteness has always been used to foster support for dire causes. Images of baby cows and pigs are a staple for animal welfare campaigns. Anti-poverty and hunger organizations feature cute, impoverished children in their television ads. Now cuteness is being used for another cause, perhaps the most important issue of the 21st century: environmentalism. Using cuteness, environmental propaganda casts nature as an innocent, helpless child in need of a guardian.

Help the Honey Bees

Cute animals are a fixture in environmental advocacy. News coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 tugged on heartstrings by focusing on helpless seals, otters and seabirds covered in oil. Cute dolphins and whales bolstered support for responsible commercial fishing practices and dolphin-safe tuna. Images of manatees injured by boat motors promote responsible boating. The latest use of the “save the planet to save cute animals” tactic has been Haagen Daaz’s “Help the Honey Bees” campaign. Their web site illustrates the environmental harm caused by disappearing bee colonies with little honey bees holding placards with the slogans “Help us!” and “SOS”.

BP Logo

A host of corporations have “cute-ified” their logos, turning to natural designs to green their public image. Plants are especially popular, symbolizing the growth of new ideas and strategies. The stodgy shield logo of BP (formally British Petroleum) has bloomed into a sunny green and yellow flower, shining brightly in television commercials with whistling gas pumps urging us “to make the day a little better”. Agricultural biotech giant Monsanto has replaced its block “M” with a spry little vine. The new Greenlist labels on SC Johnson’s household cleaners also have a cute, leafy vine.

Environmental awareness has been around for decades, but increasing alarm about global warming has put it on the forefront of the public mind. It is no longer only in the realm of hippies and tree huggers; the average American consumer can also be an environmentalist! But since the issue of environmentalism is so vast and complicated, many newcomers to the green movement may feel unsure about where they can start. Cuteness is an effective way to make novel, complicated ideas and technology easier to understand by taking away uncertainty and allowing empathy. For example, when introducing the iMac G3 in 1998, Apple focused on the computer’s cuteness and ease of use rather than its technological capabilities. Television commercials playing the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” emphasized that the G3’s rounded, approachable design came in a variety of bright colors. Similarly, the green movement is now focusing on easy, feel-good ways consumers can help the planet.

Small, low-effort contributions that help a larger cause can be a good way to get people to care about an issue, such as Donating $0.50 a day to help an impoverished child eat and go to school. Most people are busy with their jobs and families and don’t wish to veer too much from their usual routines. Greening one’s domestic situation and consumer choices can be a good place to start. Many of the shows on the Discovery Network’s new all-environmental channel Planet Green focus on ways to do this: plant low-water use grass in your yard; buy produce from your local farmers market; install new insolated windows to reduce heating needs. You can save the planet from your own backyard.

This method of promoting environmentalism through small, homebound efforts is also popular because it works with the familiarity people have with domesticated nature. Home lawns, gardens and residential parks are seen as non-threatening portions of nature, easy to maintain and control — similar to pet dogs and cats. This familiarity and reliance on humans evokes feelings of empathy. People can relate more to nature when it’s cute little flowers and butterflies, not hurricanes or tornadoes or the avian flu.

Is it helpful to the green movement to gain attention for the cause by focusing on the cute parts of nature? It’s easy to sympathize with polar bears in danger from melting glaciers, but not necessarily the microbes or fungi that make up the majority of life on the planet- and can have a bigger impact on the environment if threatened by global warming. Cute-ifying environmentalism can help newcomers understand the movement’s goals, but it can also simplify and minimize the very real threat of environmental destruction.

While people may feel good buying a green laundry detergent with a picture of a cute tree on the bottle, it plays into the very consumerism that is causing environmental destruction. It may be a good place to start, but people then have to be educated about the effects their choices have on the environment, and what more they can do to help. It is also important to alert consumers to “greenwashing”, masking environmentally-unfriendly practices with a green public face.

Ultimately, environmentalism may benefit from cuteness. It can reduce the apprehension this large, scary issue generates, offering people a sense of hope: If we all work together, we can fix it. Just like Apple was “the computer for the rest of us”, cuteness can be used to make the most important issue of the 21st century more palatable for everyone.

Nicole Peterson is a recent graduate from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. “A Brighter, Cuter Future” is part of her on-going research project Design Benign, studying how cuteness is used in contemporary design culture.

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PUBLISHED ON Jul.31.2008 BY Speak Up
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

This is a great article! Strikes me that, similarly, preschool and daycare signs that feature colorful crayon lettering and the backward "e" does not ultimately instill faith that the school will help your child with penmanship and the alphabet.

The childish lettering on the daycare sign is meant instead to convey that the building houses a place for children...and not the quality of the services.

This could be the case with the environmental movement. To elicit sympathy and connection, people like the perennially cute Sally Struthers parade out pictures of cute kids. Sure. Over time the "cute kid" montage becomes loaded with de facto meaning.

If I see a dramatic picture of a walrus doing something powerful on the cover of a pamphlet, it's going to be about walrus "science." If I see a close-cropped picture of a baby walrus (awwww!) it's going to be about protection.

The question of whether this ultimately benefits the cause(s) is difficult for me to grasp. On one hand it seems to diminish, simplify and distort the complexity of the issue. (Imagine two cute cartoon characters where one is smacking the shit out of the other and the headline "domestic violence hurts everyone!") However, the cute quotient is the great equalizer...everyone can appreciate cute. So wouldn't that be a great place to start with a message that required mass sympathy? What else is there?

On Jul.31.2008 at 01:46 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

This is amazingly stupid advertising. Cuteness is a poor tool for motivation. It's dumbing down what ought to be convincing information. Anyone remotely informed about the bee crises knows that ultimately it's going to affect the food chain right up to our next grocery bill. This isn't an abstraction.
These may be adorable little ads, but a waste of opportunity and money as I see it. Why direct environmental issues to adults as if they were in Kindergarten? If it's for the 20-something generation, it's still condescending to their intelligence. And so you get the attention span of a gnat. Two seconds of cuteness and then they go right back to sleepwalking.
If the environmental movement is in a rut, if they can't convince lazy, distracted people to press their government-in-the-pocket-of-industry for more effective legislation, what are cute bees going to do? Make us smile more?

When Monsanto, one of the true corporate giants in the pollution business starts using green leafy things, you know it's all just advertising BS.
PMS 355 green doesn't make you environmentally responsible. It's just a color chip.

On Aug.01.2008 at 10:04 AM
darrel’s comment is:

Hasn't 'cute' been a staple of branding endeavors for...well...forever?

On Aug.01.2008 at 11:34 AM
Pesky’s comment is:

I'm sorry I called this stupid. I don't really mean to insult anyone here. When faced with a real disaster, in my case - Hurricane Katrina, a certain hard realism and impatience sets in for fluffy design solutions to genuinely catastrophic problems. It doesn't seem to have softened with time. I apologize if I spoke too bluntly.

On Aug.01.2008 at 11:43 AM
Design Benign’s comment is:

Pesky- No problem. Of course you can disagree with the article. It's not like the Internet Police are going to come after you. ^^ I definitely agree that cuteness is not an appropriate design choice for everything, and I question in the article whether it is an appropriate way to promote environmentalism. But is interesting to explore the logic behind its use.

Sometimes cute can help, and sometimes it can be patronizing- that can depend on the product it is advertising and the people who view it. As successful as Apple is in its cute marketing, they do receive criticism of "dumbing down" computers, making them seem "kiddy" or "girly". I don't agree with these sentiments (I think it's mostly tech-saavy people not wanting regular folks in on their computer territory), but I can definitely see where they're coming from.

In my research I'm trying to figure out why and how cuteness is used in (predominantly Western) design. Dissent towards those design choices is certainly valid.

On Aug.01.2008 at 01:40 PM
Carni’s comment is:

Just want to second Pesky's point about Monsanto. While I understand that their inclusion in this article is to demonstrate that corporations are greening their image, and the author is not necessarily claiming that they actually have become more responsible, it raises an interesting point.

The recent green-washing of some of the biggest corporate offenders out there is really problematic. It's only helping to dilute the effectiveness of "branding" environmental responsibility. When every new product and every advertising campaign includes a statement of enviro-friendliness, the aggregate effect is visual and rhetorical noise; they all end of meaningless.

My skepticism of "cuteness" as an effective stylistic vehicle for promoting action on environmental issues is that, like any style, it can be co-opted. When Corporations like Monsanto can cover their overwhelming history of environmental crimes and human rights violations with a fuzzy aura of corporate responsibility, than how can the public trust any "responsible" corporation? All they get is PR and cutesy advertising.

On Aug.01.2008 at 03:14 PM
darrel’s comment is:

"The recent green-washing of some of the biggest corporate offenders out there is really problematic."

I think this goes well beyond greenwashing. Marketing and branding is often used to APPEAR to care more about whatever the corporation should care about, but really don't. This is nothing new. It's a part of capitalism. ;o)

I'm not skeptical of cuteness. I'm skeptical of marketing...as we all should be.

On Aug.01.2008 at 05:55 PM
Peter Whitley’s comment is:

I was going to respond to the injustice of marketing co-opting earnest social branding then Darrel beat me too it.

We shouldn't be too indignant or surprised about marketing efforts to reinterpret their client's images. Isn't that basically what design is meant to do? The other end of the spectrum would be to pitch your bold new mark to Shell oil that features an oil-covered duck. Sure...there's an aspect of the company. Would it be fair? Probably not. These corporations, just like we individuals, dress to emphasize our strengths and the things we are proud of.

The other factor that comes to mind is that issues marketing is not exclusive. We can have cute bees in one context and acres of bee graves stretching off into the distance with some grave message about the end of pollination as we know it in another. That's fine. That's reasonable.

But to condemn one line of marketing without context is a bit sticky. What if that bee ad was designed to appear in Teen Beat?

On Aug.01.2008 at 10:50 PM
joco’s comment is:

I liked this article and the points made. I admit to being a sucker for picking something up and purchasing it because it claimed to be green.
As for "cute" selling. Cute and Cool sell - thus every classic rock song being used for advertisement.
I'll be honest about what I would rather look at as far as advertisements go. Something that will make me smile - even within the seriousness of the issue. That's it in a nutshell. I acknowledge all the horror in consequence of reality through marketing but it doesn't mean I want to look at it or listen to it. I'd rather go out and read a book on the Crusades or the Industrial Revolution. Such is life for me.

On Aug.02.2008 at 06:03 PM
David Sherwin’s comment is:

This article is bang on, but something it doesn't bang on very hard is just how naive cuteness can be as a long-term branding and/or marketing strategy for these big multi-national corporations.

Cuteness as a design motif for major corporations that sell products that have a somewhat negative impact on the environment is a byproduct of trying to soften the hypocrisy of their endeavor, and contains the seeds of its own destruction. If you spend 2% of your efforts on alternative fuels while the other 98% is derived from oil profits and goes to shareholders, then spend a couple million on focusing on that 2%, people are going to figure out what's really going on fairly quick.

Let them use cuteness and illusory social responsibility as a shield to briefly deflect criticism, and let us allow their investment to backfire.

On Aug.16.2008 at 01:45 AM
ker co’s comment is:

branding at its best. identity at its worst.

im not a pro but i find the logo works, it hides the true image of those environment offenders.

On Oct.06.2008 at 12:14 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

Cuteness in advertising is like pink vomit.

On Oct.07.2008 at 03:37 PM