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Marketing Planet Earth
To celebrate the Earth, people first had to leave it.
The first Earth Day celebration in 1970 was dreamt up by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson. Among other influences, Nelson has said it was the “Earthrise” photo taken during the Apollo 8 mission that really brought the fragility of our planet against the vast darkness of space to life.
Inspired by that iconic image, Nelson set about creating the annual holiday, which will be celebrated yet again this Friday – thanks to some smart marketing choices in those early days.
Nelson’s vision was for a nationwide movement of events inspired by the “teach-ins” of the civil rights movement. But the campaign needed enough structure and a finely tuned message that would engage student protest groups and more conservative Americans alike.
So, Nelson turned to the pros.
Putting the Earth in Earth Day
Nelson’s messaging stresses were solved when ace advertising copywriter Julian Koenig joined the scrappy team. Koenig’s first suggestion was to lose the name “Environmental Teach-in.” In classic creative fashion, he offered a number of options (with a clear personal favorite).
Here’s how early organizer Denis Hayes puts it:
“He offered a bunch of possible names — Earth Day, Ecology Day, Environment Day, E Day — but he made it quite clear that we would be idiots if we didn’t choose Earth Day.”
The second element of Koenig’s pitch was a full-page ad in the Sunday New York Times opinion section.
The ad checked all the boxes. It had the right tone – provocative but inclusive. It had the right message – organize at the local level. It had the right call to action – donate to keep the movement going.
Still, the ad was a risk. It took up half the scrappy organization’s budget.
In the end, the ad was a resounding success shadowed only by Earth Day itself, which saw one tenth of the U.S. population take part. The Earth Day branding stuck. The organization received thousands of contacts and donations, and other publications started running it for free.
Like Giving Tuesday, Earth Day organizers did not trademark the name and encouraged groups to use it to boost awareness. It also shared some of the best ideas groups had for activities, from clean-ups to tree planting, which have endured as part of the Earth Day tradition for 50+ years.