How To Market 10,000 Years Into The Future

Sep 17, 2019

Good marketing starts with understanding your target audience.

But what if you’re communicating to an audience 10,000 years from now you know next to nothing about? That’s the challenge facing New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP).

Researchers call it nuclear semiotics, and it just might be the toughest communications challenge in history.

The WIPP hosts a 250-million-year-old salt deposit that is used to contain nearly 2 million cubic feet of radioactive debris, made up of materials like uranium and plutonium. Eventually, the salt deposit will collapse on itself over time, naturally sealing the nuclear waste.

Life or Death Marketing

Nuclear waste can stay highly radioactive and dangerous to humans and other forms of life for 10,000 years. Therein lies WIPP’s communication challenge – create a “Do Not Enter” sign that still has meaning 100 centuries from now.

The longer you think about the problem, the harder it gets to solve.

A written long-term nuclear waste warning message probably won’t work. The Egyptian put up hieroglyphs warning people to stay out of the pyramids. Grave robbers didn’t understand them, and today researchers ignore them.

Scientists have turned to panels of communications pros, artists, actors, linguists and environmental designers to tackle this problem.

Artist Jon Lomberg created an image designed to evoke fear, showing a human in danger as they interact with radioactive materials. But critics pointed out that it must be read from top to bottom. If it’s read from the bottom up, it tells the opposite story.

Michael Brill, an environmental designer, created “A Landscape of Thorns,” suggesting large metal spikes be placed over the WIPP site to show the area is dangerous. But similar to the pyramids and hieroglyphs, drawing attention to the site may actually attract visitors in the future.

Two German linguists argued that governments around the world should breed cats that turn different colors when exposed to radiation, they would be called “ray cats.” The story of these cats would be passed down through generations, warning people of the danger.

Another researcher suggested doing nothing and leaving the site entirely unmarked. Human curiosity is simply too powerful a force to overcome.

Speaking Their Language

Most marketers today can count on their audience understanding the language and messaging without resorting to ray cats. But nuclear semiotics offers a valuable lesson about cultural biases and our tendency to assume what we knew about audiences in the past is still true today.

Long story short: Don’t make assumptions about your customers. Take time to figure out what your audience thinks, feels and believes now and in the future, and use it to design a message that will compel them to listen.

Liked this? Please share!

New logo for Long Story Short, the Braithwaite Communications weekly newsletter.

If you like this article, you'll love our newsletter.

We'll send you a great true story with a useful business lesson every Monday.

Thanks! You'll receive a welcome email soon. (It might go to your Junk, Clutter or Promotions folder.)