Using Culture as an environmental ‘call to arms’

14 Mar 2012|Added Value

General Electric recently released an online campaign encouraging Chinese entrepreneurs to partner with them to address China’s most pressing environmental and resource challenges.

A noteworthy aspect of the campaign, titled “Future Folklore”, is how environmental issues are grounded within Chinese history and culture.  This departs from a persistent stereotype which encourages local consumers to fight against Chinese tradition to achieve environmental outcomes.  The typical tone is often condescending – where normative behaviour is inevitably Western and Chinese are asked to “get in line” and “abandon ancient thinking”. 

Academic Judith Shapiro, most famously, described Western reservations about Chinese culture’s environmental credentials with her term “war against nature” – which describes Confucianism’s, and more recently, Communism’s failure to prioritize environmental outcomes over political goals.

In a refreshing perspective, General Electric’s  animated films project a vision of “Innovative Solutions” that encourages Chinese entrepreneurs to create their own “future folklores” by leveraging inspiration from China.

The campaign is a series of three short videos entitled Fireflies, Water and Wind.  Each is anchored in famous stories of Chinese history, where calamity was overcome by collaboration and an innovative attitude to nature.  Each story in turn highlights General Electric’s pioneering role in the field of light-emission, water and wind energy solutions.

Fireflies and Water, focus on the well loved character from the ancient novel, Journey to the East – the Monkey King.   Recounting famous chapters from the novel, the video extols his heroic escapes from evil spirits and natural calamities.

In Fireflies, the luminescent qualities of the insects help the Monkey King rescue his travelling companions from evil spirits set on ending their famous journey.  It is only by cooperating with nature, that the heroes can deceive their enemies – an advantage they hold over their less enlightened nemesis.

In Water, the Monkey King and his travelling companions encounter a land ravished by severe drought.  Summoning his divine powers, the Monkey King and a magical dragon turn salt water into clouds, creating a desperately needed downpour.  The educative voiceover, reminds local audiences …

 “In ancient times, Monkey King worked with nature to turn the clouds into rain, to water our land.  Today, General Electric learns from the wisdom of our past, using sea water desalination technology to provide fresh water to people around the world.  General Electric believes when you work with nature, you can create a more harmonious future and write the future folklore”.

See here…

Similarly, the campaign showcases General Electric’s commitment to wind technology by recounting the epic battle of Red Cliff during the Han dynasty. This time, famous strategist Kong Ming uses this unique knowledge of the wind to defeat the enemy troops in an unlikely victory, that is famously recalled in the classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” (and more recently by John Woo’s recent film, Red Cliff).

See here…

The campaign can be seen as a brave attempt to re-look at the way Chinese people view the environment and possibilities for change. Importantly, the campaign presents Chinese as masters of their own destiny – emphasising enablement, rather than guilt or inferiority.

General Electric’s culturally sensitive approach is instructive to brands proposing innovation in emerging markets. Embedding innovation as an indispensable part of local culture and history serves as a “call to arms” for local consumers, activating feelings of pride and connection. Importantly, it presents problems of modernity as part of an ongoing cultural legacy, creating a positive and less confrontational challenge to audiences.


Written by Jerry Clode, Associate Director, Cultural Insight, AV UK

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