Gross on Stine, 'Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America's Public Lands'
Jeffrey K. Stine. Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America's Public Lands. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, 2021. 237 pp. (paper), ISBN 978-1-944466-46-6; Open Monographs (pdf), ISBN 978-1-944466-45-9.
Reviewed by Rachel S. Gross (University of Colorado-Denver) Published on H-Environment (January, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58512
In the 1980s, Hollywood tough guy Charles Bronson took his vigilante reputation to the world of public service. Bronson was a perfect poster boy for the Ronald Reagan-era PR effort, Take Pride in America. In TV ads, Bronson, along with fellow actors Clint Eastwood and Louis Gossert Jr., decried “bad guys who beat up on trees” and encouraged listeners to take voluntary action to help solve the problem (p. 62). The Take Pride ads were a curious take on the pressing environmental issues of the day. To be sure, vandalism did occur but to name that as a central environmental issue and to use Bronson’s image to convey pride in land as a masculine and patriotic concern were deflections. Just what these ads were a distraction from is the question that Jeffrey K. Stine addresses in Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America’s Public Lands. Stine argues that the Take Pride in America campaign, which pushed voluntarism as a solution for the issues plaguing public lands, was a reflection of the conservative ideology that government was a problem rather than part of a solution. The Take Pride in America program suggested “that the enlightened self-interest of the private sector offered the ideal approach to public lands stewardship” (p. 53). The rise of outdoor recreation and use of public lands after World War II prompted federal agencies to use professional advertising experts to push voluntarism via first icons and then, in the 1980s, celebrities.
Green Persuasion begins with the origins of public advertising campaigns—especially the successful Smokey the Bear from the mid-century—and then offers a chronological tracing of voluntarism in a succession of presidential administrations. The Ad Council, evolving out of World War II’s War Advertising Council, worked with the Forest Service on press releases and copy. Like the postwar advertising effort to reduce traffic deaths, the Ad Council took on such issues as education, health, citizenship, and, especially, environmental concerns. Ultimately, with this government work, the advertising industry saw itself as providing “a useful public service” (p. 2). Chapter 2 continues to trace advertising professionals via the Keep America Beautiful campaign, the brainchild of corporations hoping to make ordinary Americans focus on their litter habits rather than focus on corporate waste or packaging. The Ad Council eventually paused that campaign as they had growing reservations by the end of the 1960s about the narrowness of a litter campaign compared with focusing on pollution. Stine argues that the Ad Council had a central role in shaping the messaging and how it landed with Americans.
The work of the Ad Council pushing voluntarism is the subject of chapter 3. The Advertising Council’s public service campaigns have long contained powerful subtexts about voluntarism—the willingness of ordinary people to donate time, labor, and/or material goods to advance a collective activity or purpose. Early examples of voluntarism for public lands included the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and the National Park Service program Volunteers in Parks (VIP). Indeed, the work of the Advertising Council was mostly done by volunteers as well. The 1970s marked the rising status of volunteering nationally, and the Ad Council aim of promoting independent individuals doing work despite a lack of government action seemed to dovetail nicely with Reagan taking office.
Chapters 4-6 take on the role of voluntarism and the launching of the Take Pride program during Reagan’s ascendency. Reagan was the first clearly anti-environmental president who claimed that “environmental protection and economic growth were incompatible” (p. 42). Reagan wanted to expand reliance on the market, marking a shift away from the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter consensus about decreasing pollution and preserving resources. Chapter 5 marks the creation of the Take Pride in America program. Donald Hodel, Reagan’s second secretary of Interior after the polarizing James Watt, thought there was not enough money nor people to protect natural resources, so “he proffered a low-cost educational initiative that would implore citizens to volunteer their services on the front line of public lands stewardship.” According to Stine, this “innocuous proposal” attracted support and eventually became the Take Pride in America program that had little impact as it prioritized “civic over governmental action” (p. 53). Looking on the long legacy of the Ad Council’s involvement with environmental PR campaigns, Hodel asked the Ad Council to promote the new program. Chapter 6 describes the first Take Pride event, a C&O Canal cleanup in 1986 that drew seven thousand scouts as volunteers. The success of that event reveals the larger ethos of the new Interior program: it placed responsibility on the public, with little accountability for the government agency itself.
In the final chapters, Stine shows the evolution of Take Pride in the administrations that followed Reagan. George H. W. Bush had a different style than Reagan, but in essence his goals were similar. Though Bush talked more about “responsible stewardship and environmental quality,” pushing volunteerism and public private partnerships was the Bush era solution to not fully funding government initiatives (p. 80). The Ad Council used NBC character ALF for public service ads, showing the Bush goal of being “unlikely to offend” that mirrored earlier approaches (p. 83). Take Pride was made into a permanent office within the Department of the Interior in 1990, though during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Take Pride was defunded and left dormant. Despite some efforts at resuscitating the program in the 2000s, it did not expand in influence, and Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior, “quietly ended support” of Take Pride in 2015 (p. 116).
In assessing the impacts of Take Pride in America, Stine argues that there is no useful quantitative measurement of the program because it was basically public relations. It could have been used alongside increased commitment in dollars to federal land agencies, but it was not. Instead, he suggests, it was a kind of substitute, serving to balance criticism of underfunding land agencies. The ultimate named goals of Take Pride were small and inoffensive: stopping littering and vandalism on public lands. Stine calls this “tepid, inconsequential action intended to appease,” reflective of the widening partisan divide on the environment in the second half of the twentieth century (pp. 118-19).
Stine faces a challenge in that his book is an analysis of a government program that in the author’s own assessment was ultimately ineffectual and unimportant. In addition to showing the program’s lack of effectiveness, Stine also makes the case for why such an analysis is necessary. For Stine, the office was a failure but a revealing one, in that its longevity reveals a political history of conservative approach to environmental (lack of) action. Namely, Take Pride in America and the agenda of voluntarism it pushed via a succession of Republican administrations reflect a partisan divide on environmental policy, where conservatives aimed to deflect attention away from how they underfunded federal land agencies.
The book is most successful in revealing the links between professional advertisers, mostly in the Ad Council, and the tactics for promotion in the Take Pride initiative, namely, the puppet/mascot era and then the celebrity era. These are fun, often visually focused, analyses of who became the faces of voluntarism and what exactly they were pushing. The message, whether it was Smokey Bear or Clint Eastwood speaking, was personal responsibility. The goal was to create a “bad guy” to distract from underfunding. Take Pride was ultimately innocuous and had little impact because it was always designed to be a simple PR campaign, a distraction. Stine’s title, Green Persuasion, points to how the program was a kind of greenwashing, hand-waving effort at assuaging public concern, a “public relations cover for its efforts to advance economic development on public lands and to reduce federal environmental protections” (p. 119). The visual imagery created by the Ad Council, celebrity posters, and TV spots offer the most lively sections, likely to engage students in environmental history or the history of advertising.
Stine’s work is ultimately a political history of a failed program, and given its narrow focus, it is likely to augment rather than supplant more extensive treatments of conversative environmental politics in the 1980s from Andrew Isenberg and James Morton Turner (The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump ). While Stine’s argument centers on voluntarism as a political message, volunteer work itself, including what the American public did and how they conceived of their participation, is not the central question of this book. Given the slimness of the volume, examining how the public service campaigns landed and how and why people volunteered would have been an interesting way to deepen the assessment of voluntarism.
Additionally, while Stine references the growing relationship between Take Pride and the outdoor industry, the link between the political messaging of Take Pride and private recreation pursuits could have been explored more deeply. How committed were outdoor companies or organizations to volunteer events? Did off-road vehicle enthusiasts simply embrace the Take Pride rhetoric or did the program shape their activist work as well? Given the political divisions apparent with different recreational practices, did varying enthusiasm for Take Pride influence those divisions or merely reflect existing tensions?
Ultimately, Stine’s story of inaction reflects his argument. While it might seem that Take Pride in America and associated Ad Council campaigns were nonpartisan projects, their goal was actually to “foster political passivity” and to “decrease negative perceptions of the administration” (p. 57). Stine succeeds in showing that this seemingly innocuous program carried a much deeper message about environmental politics.
Citation: Rachel S. Gross. Review of Stine, Jeffrey K., Green Persuasion: Advertising, Voluntarism, and America's Public Lands. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58512This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.