New climate ads trot out young people to make a case that CEOs have been ignoring for years

First, it’s a culturally diverse group of British school kids. Then a farm girl with braces. Next, a Scandinavian model, a stylish Italian hypebeast, and a Stranger Things-like gaggle of middle schoolers biking through a junkyard. If you had it on mute, it could be an ad for the Gap or Levi’s jeans. But this collection of central casting youngsters are actually sending a message to global CEOs on behalf of Amazon’s Climate Pledge.

The kids are addressing the planet’s corporate leaders, pitching them on the common sense behind things like wind and solar energy, sustainable farming, and more local supply chains. An adorable 6-year-old delivers the required Kevin McCallister-style line, “I’m only 6. You figure it out,” after which two young girls wading in a flooded city street drop the guilt-trip standard, “this is your chance to do something good.” It’s a good-looking spot that’s remarkably light on substance. After all, this isn’t breaking news; These are all measures that world leaders have absolutely known about for decades, and just haven’t acted on.

The Climate Pledge was announced by Amazon’s then-CEO Jeff Bezos in September 2019. It asks signatories to attain net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, and agree to measure, reduce, and offset carbon emissions. The pledge isn’t legally binding, and there’s no penalty for not meeting its standards. Since launch, 108 companies have signed on, including Microsoft, Unilever, IBM, JetBlue, Mercedes-Benz, Best Buy, Uber, and Verizon. Notable absences include Amazon competitors like Apple and Google, who have made climate commitments of their own in the last few years.

Jennifer Rushlow, associate dean of environmental programs at Vermont Law School, says the ad appears to be positioning Amazon and the Climate Pledge as listening to young people, valuing their contributions, and taking their advice. “Upcoming generations are skeptical of corporate America, worried that it is destroying the environment and human rights,” she says. “This ad looks like it is trying to appeal to young people by acknowledging their concerns for their future, as reassurance that Amazon and other signatories are doing their part to make things right, and therefore, buy stuff from us and not the other guy.”

If this ad lacks substance, it’s an accurate reflection of the pledge itself, which has been called little more than a “branding exercise.” Bezos conveniently announced the Climate Pledge just as Amazon employees were planning a walkout over what they considered the company’s inadequate environmental responsibility.

Jamie Henn, founder of nonprofit media lab Fossil Free Media, says that while a credible plan to get to net zero emissions is a big deal, he sees some of these pledges as little more than a PR stunt. “I worry that the intended audiences for these ads are mostly other CEOs that Amazon wants to impress or politicians who they worry might start holding them accountable,” says Henn, who previously worked at the climate nonprofit “There’s a Davos-esque quality to these ads: they present as edgy, but I didn’t hear anything concrete. If Amazon was in D.C. lobbying Congress to pass every climate provision in the American Jobs Plan, I’d be more impressed. But from what I can tell, their executive chairman has been spending more time in outer space than inside the beltway.”

This critique is underscored by the behavior of the pledge’s very signatories. Ad agency holding company Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) is on the list, yet still counts ExxonMobil as a client. Amazon itself saw its carbon emissions rise by 19% in 2020. Rushlow says it will be important to focus on the details of this pledge, specific decarbonization strategies, and how they’re working, “so consumers are supporting companies making real change, not greenwashing.”

As for the ad itself, using kids is a familiar climate trope, aiming to guilt people into changing their behavior in order to save future generations. We’ve had kids explaining climate change to us for Earth Hour. Mothers taking on the revolutionary act of voting to save their child’s future. And Apple’s whisper-quiet climate change promise to a sleeping baby.

“The ads are definitely slick, but I would have preferred to see some CEOs talking about how they’ll get their businesses to zero emissions, rather than young people being used as props,” says Henn. “We don’t really need corporations to tell us that young people want climate action—youth have been marching in the streets for years. What we need is for corporations to start acting themselves.”

Fast Company