Two days ago former RSPB Conservation Director and environmental guru Mark Avery (I think of him that way anyway, but Mark is definitely a marmite-conservationist – which I think shows he’s doing a good job: if everyone agrees with what you’re saying it’s probably too banal to have been worth saying in the first place) made an addition to his blog’s header: The RSPB’s Advert – what do you think of it?
Mark is a huge supporter of the RSPB, as befits someone who spent most of his professional life (most of it so far anyway) working for the organisation. I’m not surprised that he would be keen to find out what his readers (and there are a lot of them) think of the RSPB’s new television ad, which can be found on Vimeo here. It shows a young (white) girl from an obviously middle-class family building bug-hotels and a small pond to provide homes for wildlife in a large and atypically ‘overgrown’ garden. It’s beautifully shot and very well-edited. Glossy even. It also firmly re-positions the RSPB as an organisation devoted to nature in general. Birds hardly feature, and the advert is uncontroversial – some might say sanitised to the point of barely making a comment on wildlife at all. It’s interesting to note that the State of Nature report, which flags the very serious threats wildlife faces in modern Britain, must have been in a pre-production stage at about the same time as this advert was being edited.
Mark, ever the canny blogger, has added a three-part poll to his post, and has asked for comment. His readers (of which etc etc) have queued up to let him know what they think…
…and it seems that the RSPB is ‘damned if they do, and damned if they don’t’. Comments (and at the time of writing there are over 40, which includes Mark’s responses) largely suggest that the RSPB has ‘lost its way’, that there is too much blurring of the difference between the corporate and environmental worlds, that the ad is ‘dumbing down’ for an audience that watches the BBC’s Springwatch, that the RSPB is muddled, that the “Build it and they will come” punch-line is a ‘classic private sector rallying cry’. There are counter-voices, and there is a very well-written comment from Steve Dudley (presumably the Steve Dudley of the BOU) who amongst other thoughtful points says something that all major nature charities are having to face up to when he writes that “…they’ve spent decades promoting themselves largely on birds and have ground to a halt”.
There is (supposedly) no right or wrong when it comes to comments. You put a question into the public domain and your audience responds. Because of who he is Mark’s audience is going to be made up mostly of the very people who the RSPB should theoretically appeal to (and of course a few who will want to stab their shooting-sticks into the RSPB at every opportunity), so it may possibly be worrying that the ad hasn’t been well-received. But I think that’s missing the point.
As Steve Dudley correctly states, the RSPB has been all about birds for decades. They’ve grown remarkably, are very influential, and the brand is familiar to most of us. But he also suggests that the organisation has ground to a halt. I don’t think that’s strictly true, and I would guess that given a different platform where he could expand on his point, Steve might have said that the RSPB is ‘in danger of grinding to a halt’ instead and gone on to explain why. The problem really is that the ‘us’ that the RSPB brand is familiar to appears to be a finite and dwindling group. The hardcore birders that grew up with the RSPB are not being replaced by other hardcore birders. It’s been noted for years that there are simply very few young birders coming through the ranks. Just who would have been joining (and funding) the RSPB in the years to come then?
I think that the truth is that far from ‘dumbing down’ to appeal to the Springwatch crowd (which viewing figures suggest is large and looking for positive messages about wildlife and nature), the RSPB has sensed which way the wind is blowing and is actively shifting ground to appeal to this large and receptive constituency.
There’s a risk in doing that of course. As the comments suggest ‘hardcore’ birders might feel alienated, but the RSPB has always been something of a shape-shifting organisation. How many people, I wonder, know that the RSPB originally formed as a welfare group in response to the plume trade? The reserves and the conservation messages came much later, and in fact the RSPB has been moving its message towards ‘nature conservation’ and away from birds for some years (the adoption of the slogan ‘a million voices for nature’ was a very deliberate statement of intent). It’s taken risks before and thrived.
Of course whether the advert works – ie gets more members – will be the acid test for this approach, but as interesting will be how the UK’s other nature organisations react. The RSPB is already a behemoth with an insider’s reputation of not ‘doing’ partnerships very well. It has to be concerning that the RSPB is so blatantly moving into territory occupied by a raft of excellent but much smaller organisations that are themselves fighting for the ‘family vote’. The advert undoubtedly treads on toes, and could clearly have been produced by Buglife or the Wildlife Trusts if they had the same pool of resources to draw on.
The reality is that even middle-class families with nice gardens might be wondering whether they can afford to support more than one nature organisation, and if the RSPB is covering everything and is providing something clearly aimed at them – well, you get the picture…
Clearly more new members should be good for conservation and nature, but if all the RSPB does is draw members away from existing organisations then no-one but the RSPB benefits.
Time will tell.
- Feature Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Corbis