November 2005: Framing Sustainability for the American Mainstream
By Susan C. Strong
(A Memo prepared for the Marketing Action Sub-Committee of the U.S. Partnership for the U.N. Decade of Education for Sustainability)
For successful framing, we have to understand what motivates mainstream Americans. In general, economic success or opportunity is the most powerful motivator to get the American public moving toward sustainability, although it is best not to use the word “sustainability” for mainstream communication yet. We must frame it as being the key to our future economic success, and refer to the historical fact that technological innovation has been the most powerful creator of economic prosperity.
Americans also react strongly to threats-- especially the economic threat of being left out (but take care not to use the phrase “left behind” as today it refers to the Religious Right’s ideas about the coming Day of Judgment). We need to tap today’s pervasive economic uneasiness, combined with traditional American optimism, love of the new, willingness to reinvent ourselves, and if it fits the specific audience we have chosen, moral or religious ideas of “creation care” or the spiritual calling to “earthcare.” It is possible that in some quarters, an “ecological security” frame might work, but the e-words (ecology, environment) must be used with caution, depending on the audience.
Some examples of catch phrase or sound bite raw material that embody the kind of complex American meta-frames described above:
- Moving toward/building a bright/brighter future
- Creating a new and better future
- Our/The New 21st Century American Dream
- Renewing/reclaiming/revitalizing the American Dream
- An America Reborn or An American Rebirth
- Keeping/Fulfilling The American Promise
- The American Promise Reborn
Another type of meta-frame not yet in sound bite form is the “Catch-up” model – America coming from behind, after being left out, suddenly really looking at what the rest of the world is doing—some examples include the Sputnik shock and the Apollo Program which resulted, and the way American automakers are now belatedly jumping on the hybrid bandwagon.