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Tina Casey headshot

The Not-So-Hidden Brand Reputation Manual Behind 'Don’t Look Up'

Don’t Look Up

The new Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is getting all sorts of reviews, many of which center around the film’s not-so-hidden messaging on climate action. Don’t Look Up also serves a much broader purpose, as a primer on communicating in the age of media clutter. In that regard it should make the “suggested viewing” list for corporate training on brand reputation and social responsibility.

Don’t Look Up is more than a climate crisis message

Don’t Look Up begins with a scientist literally doing the opposite. She looks up into the cosmos through a powerful telescope and discovers a new comet, which is big enough to destroy the Earth. On further examination it is barreling straight towards Earth, no doubt about it.

Given that the title of the movie is Don’t Look Up, but the protagonist does the opposite, that opening sequence preps the audience for a primer on how to communicate what you see with your own eyes, when your society is overwhelmed by non-factual information.

Many reviewers have made the connection between Don’t Look Up and climate action, but that misses the point. In terms of communication, the film’s central message is about the social spread of non-facts, a problem that applies equally to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “Big Lie” about voter fraud in 2020 presidential election.

Life imitates art in Don’t Look Up

The A-list cast of Don’t Look Up includes Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tyler Perry, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance and Timothée Chalamet. They carry the film along at a good clip, but many critics have complained that the overall messaging is too heavy-handed.

Isherwell, played by Rylance, represents the Tech Hero Money Genius, an agglomeration of characteristics that encompasses Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. Like the “manic pixie dream girl” character, a Tech Hero Money Genius has no inner life. Instead, they exist to fulfill the needs of others. In return they receive an almost unimaginable degree of power, and the money to go with it.

Meanwhile, DiCaprio's role dovetails with his real life, in which he is a high-profile climate activist. DiCaprio has leveraged his star power to draw attention to the climate crisis in various ways, from speaking before the United Nations to participating in protest marches and sponsoring a racing team in the Formula E electric vehicle racing circuit.

In recent years, DiCaprio has also invested in various areas with a focus on sustainable foods as well as manufactured diamonds. He is also a backer of the fossil-free financial services firm Aspiration along with investors such as Orlando Bloom and Robert Downey, Jr. Aspiration has seen its growth skyrocket since its launch in 2015.

The message on this point is subtle but sharp. Corporate leadership could make a difference, but only if it is not misdirected by ego and self-interest.

A communication lesson for corporate leaders

Negative reviews aside, Don’t Look Up assembles a deft, entertaining list of characters who illustrate many of the obstacles in the way of fact-based communications.

On the science side, the film shows how the researchers with their hands directly on the data can be hampered by youth, inexperience, personal anxieties and a singular focus on detail at the expense of clarity.

Nevertheless, all of these obstacles can be overcome if people on the other side are paying attention. As expressed by Don’t Look Up, the most critical failure is on the part of the voting public.

The film portrays a public obsessed with interpersonal communication through Isherwell’s fictional “BASH” network, to the extent that citizens fail to grasp the role that basic competency plays in sustaining a modern democracy.

The result is catastrophe. The film does highlight the role of a jaded, complacent media, but that is a side note to the main thread. The centerpiece of the film is Meryl Streep’s over-the-top portrayal of an abysmally incompetent, self-centered U.S. president who assigns equally incompetent, self-absorbed people to head up critical tasks and agencies, such as placing an anesthesiologist at the head of NASA. In contrast, the staff that engineers the president’s lavishly staged public statements is evidently at the top of its game.

Brand reputation and voter education

The election of incompetent leaders is nothing new in a democracy. In the U.S., the debacle of the one-term Trump presidency is the culmination of generations-long messaging about voter education that revolves around who to have a beer with, instead of who has the experience and temperament to administer powerful offices in a diversified industrial economy.

Many corporate leaders have begun to build their brand reputation on get-out-the-vote efforts. That is all well and good, but the damage has already been done. Local, state and federal offices are already saturated with elected officials who obstruct climate action, violate basic COVID-19 prevention guidelines and promote lies about voter fraud — and that’s on top of the ones who support armed insurrection and promote religion over science in the area of women’s reproductive health.

It’s going to be a tough row to hoe, but corporate leaders who are really serious about cutting through the communications clutter need to focus like a laser on voter education.

How to cut through the media clutter

One good place to start would be to take a page from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In 2016, CDC issued a report on the "Tips from Former Smokers” media campaign. “Tips” was launched in 2012 as the first anti-tobacco media campaign to be funded by the federal government. According to CDC, it was an overwhelming success. By 2016 the campaign was credited with helping 400,000 smokers to quit permanently. The number has swelled to approximately 1 million since then.

CCD relaunched the campaign last March. It provides clear guidance on effective messaging across any number of issues.

“Research shows that emotionally evocative, evidence-based campaigns, like Tips, are effective in raising awareness about the dangers of smoking and helping people who smoke to quit,” CDC explains. “These campaigns are even more effective when coupled with quit lines, which provide free, confidential support services to help people quit smoking.”

As applied to voter education, the lesson for corporate leaders is clear. Like it or not, an effective voter education effort needs to be bipartisan.

Corporate leaders who are truly serious about climate action, COVID-19 prevention and voter suppression need to send powerful, emotional messages about harm and potential harm, and those messages need to provide voters with specific action steps that prevent harm — namely, voting for candidates who are capable of preserving foundational values in a modern democracy.

Image credit: Matese Fields via Unsplash

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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