The RSPB’s new advert: you can’t please everyone…but be careful who you annoy

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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

 

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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I birded the world for twenty years before quitting my airline job and am now freelance. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

6 Comments

  1. Rebecca Bayly says:

    In my experience as a face to face recruiter for NGOs, people are indeed often now citing membership of the RSPB or the NT as doing their token bit for wildlife and not joining others. They often seem unaware of what the RSPB or NT actually do or don’t do . However, the recession has been the main problem. The target audience has learnt to say “No more memberships.”

  2. Charlie Moores says:

    Thanks for commenting Rebecca. What you say is very interesting. I went through the RSPB’s training programme to do face to face recruiting two years ago (I was fired during the probation period for missing my ‘target’ by a fraction, but that’s another story). We were trained then to talk about nature, the rainforests, and what the RSPB did abroad (and not to focus on birds especially), but what the ‘public’ often said was that the reserves were somewhere nice to go and that by joining the RSPB they were doing (as you say) their bit. I do worry for the survival of some of the small but vital organisations out there that focus on specific groups of wildlife: mind you, they have some very skilled and savvy people amongst their ranks so I’m sure they have strategies in place…

  3. Simon says:

    Interesting views, there is of course a reason why those people who don’t currently support a wildlife charity but yet like a lot of springwatch at tea time – and that is an untapped market because no conservation organisation has tapped into it, they simply don’t currently appeal.

    Yet this isnt about big or small, rich or poor – I’m a bit fed-up with both of those as excuses for not supporting or doing our bit as birders. Arguably you could say your money and your ‘vote’ goes further with a bigger organisation.

    The state of nature brought together 25 of the conservation allies, they all want to shout louder and for all to have a larger voice they need more members.

    RSPB aren’t alone in that and the urgently need to shift a gear up, nature is falling, we need to salvage what we can, otherwise it will be lost forever and quite soon. Give them your support to provide greater financial and political support and watch the changes – standing still is not an option nature clearly needs us as the State of Nature report shows, but also demonstrates the need for the 25 conservation allies to be one voice together.

  4. Andy Parsons says:

    I was a member of environmental charities and my local Wildlife Trust for years before I joined the RSPB. I thought they were just about bird watching, and back then I wasn’t really in to bird watching. Then I saw that the RSPB were part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition and it occurred to me that they were a lot more ‘big picture’ and may do more than just advertise carbon intensive holidays bird watching to a middle class (and largely retired) audience (this may be unfair, but the NT seems to do this a lot, and I had assumed RSPB were similar). So one holiday in Dorset we turned up at Arne reserve and have been members ever since.

    I’m pleased to see them taking a broad view and demonstrating (well, maybe not demontrating, but ‘accepting’ or implying) that you need a healthy ecosystem to support a thriving bird population. I’m also encouraged to see what they do globally – an ex-colleague of mine has just got a job with them and seems to be spending his time stopping illegal logging in Indonesia! Not what I thought the RSPB would be doing, but I’m glad they are.

  5. Charlie Moores says:

    Thanks for commenting Andy.

    Can I ask, are you still a member of other conservation organisations and local WT or just the RSPB now? Not looking to make or score a point, just interested.

    What you say about the RSPB working in Indonesia is very interesting. They’ve made much of their working there and the Harapan Forest was something the trainers at the recruitment course I was on made sure that we all knew about (I was the only RSPB member on the course oddly enough so the only one there with previous knowledge of it). I wondered at the time whether the RSPB had the resources to spread itself so widely but it seems they can and all credit to them for it.

    There’s no doubt ‘global biodiversity’ needs the RSPB, but it also needs a wide spread of expertise and differing viewpoints to make sure that new ideas and fresh thinking is still available to help protect it. My original thought stands then: if the RSPB is drawing membership fees away from other orgs that is NOT a good way to go and not viable long-term, but if they are expanding rapidly (membership went up 50,000 between 2007 and 2012) by recruiting new money then they have clearly made the correct decision in changing direction as they have.

    Cheers

  6. Andy Parsons says:

    Charlie,

    Yes, still a member of local wildlife orgs – well, one anyway, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. So, in my case the RSPB didn’t take money away from another organisation – but I am sure it will for others.

    Andy

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