What do you get if you cross sustainable tourism with a sense of humour?

Dumb Ways to Die
One of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time, Dumb Ways to Die showed that humour and serious issues of responsibility can mix (click image to watch video)

Not a lot. At least not from the many mirthless hours I have recently spent wading through websites and marketing campaigns trying to find examples using humour to talk about responsibly run tourism. Plenty about saving the planet. Not much that suggests people enjoy doing it.

Anyone who has ever tried to talk about the importance of sustainable tourism will know how hard it is to keep the crowd interested. For most of the world, sustainability might be necessary, but it’s dull. It’s why people are advised to use stories to engage their audience, or to stop talking about responsibility altogether. I suggest we might also introduce a bit of levity from time to time.

In recent years, many campaigners have realised humour can be a far more powerful weapon than hectoring. Free Range Studio’s viral video The Meatrix – on the not very funny topic of factory farming – has been translated into over 30 languages and watched by more than 30 million people. Meanwhile, the winner of the Cannes Lions for best advert in 2013 – and the all-time most awarded campaign in Cannes Lions’ history – was a campaign to get children in Australia to be more careful around railway lines. Again, not a very funny subject, yet I’ve seen kids laughing and singing its catchy song Dumb Ways to Die ever since.

method use of humour for labels about sustainabilitySome of the most successful sustainable brands – outside of tourism – use humour well, and often in sectors whose offerings make people smile a lot less than they do when having a great holiday. Method produces environmentally friendly household cleaning products. Formed by two friends in 2000, the company is now worth over £100m. As well as looking innovative, smelling nice and working well, part of Method’s success is down to its gentle subversion of the cliched languages of cleaning product marketing and eco-worthiness. The label on the kitchen cleaner I have at home tells me that “powerful, non-toxic learning is not a myth. We’re still working on the unicorns” and asks me to “Recycle for good Karma”. It’s not laugh out loud stuff, but it serves to reinforce Method’s overall message that its product is different, not only to the toxic cleaning products next to it on the shelf, but also to those not so efficient eco-alternatives someone might have tried in the past.

Elsewhere, sandwich chain Pret a Manger’s napkins feature the following message:

pret a manger's napkin“This napkin is made from 100% recycled stock (Pret’s environment department is militant, we’re making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunch of napkins (which you don’t need or want), please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.”

Nowhere does Pret say: “Save the planet by using less napkins'”. This, however, remains the messaging technique still favoured by most hotel towel reuse schemes. Not only is it greenwash, it’s a missed opportunity to tell a more original, distinctive and engaging story.

Humour helps things lodge in the mind. One of the few genuinely funny responsible tourism marketing videos that I have seen is from England’s South Downs National Park, encouraging dogwalkers on the Downs to pick up their pooch’s poo. It is very funny, reminiscent of the old Aardman Creature Comforts videos. It gets its behaviour change message across, and also works to promote the park as a lovely place to walk your dog.

In case of fire exit building before tweeting about it sign
if they can make fire warnings funny…

So rather than all those joyless cards with their po-faced and exaggerated claims about how washing your towel a bit less fights climate change, what about using a smattering of self-deprecatory humour? Something that makes me smile when I read it. If a hotel got its message right, some guests might even take a photograph of the card and share it with their friends on Instagram or Facebook, thus introducing a whole new a set of potential clients.

Finally, and most importantly, humour builds bonds. We laugh together because we share an appreciation of a situation. We are able to relate it to our own lives. Building these bonds with travellers is what makes them care about destinations when they visit, and makes them want to talk about them on social media when they get back home. And because they now remember them and feel a more human connection, it’s what makes them want to come back.

I will be speaking in a session on “How can you use Responsible Tourism to drive sales” at 1pm on Tuesday November 4th at WTM London. The panel also features Victoria Bacon, Head of Communications at ABTA, Justin Francis, CEO of ResponsibleTravel.com, and Rachel O’Reilly, Head of Communications at Kuoni Travel. UK.

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of Travindy.com, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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