How a changing climate could disrupt media buying

From threatening Sunday afternoon football to creating a premium for weather content, experts say global warming will transform planning as we know it.
Nelson Ndongala-Unsplash

A version of this story originally appeared on strategy. It is the latest article in a series exploring the marketing and brand impacts of climate change. You can read parts one and two here

Global warming won’t just reshape how (and when) businesses can attract tourists, or how much sunscreen, ice cream or takeout food they can expect to sell in any given season. It will also have vast impacts on their media plans, and even the prices they pay for certain media, as tactics evolve to accommodate uncertainty – as they have throughout the pandemic.

The gold-medal match between the Canadian and Swedish women’s soccer teams at the Tokyo Olympics offers a glimpse into what brands can expect, says marketing professor David Soberman of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. Originally scheduled as a morning game in Tokyo, the match was postponed to the evening due to the extreme heat.

“You may find that a lot of these sporting events that used to be an afternoon activity in the summer suddenly become an evening activity, or they become rescheduled simply because of the heat,” Soberman says.

He adds that the broader sports trend of building open-air stadiums may fall out of favour as players and viewers seek shelter from the heat – not unlike in the country of Qatar, which is building massive air-controlled stadiums in order to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Devon MacDonald, an industry leader and former CEO of Mindshare Canada, notes that the last-minute change to the women’s soccer final may have worked out well for North American viewers, but eventually “player safety and player health is going to be paramount over ‘will this work for broadcast?’” He envisions a not-so-distant future in which NFL football – a mainstay of American television – is no longer able to be played on Sunday afternoons, especially in the southern U.S.

Advertisers and their agencies are “very used to adjusting to the weather,” MacDonald says. But they aren’t necessarily ready for the future reality, which will involve worsening periodic heat waves, sprawling forest fires and other extreme weather events.

These environmental changes, MacDonald says, will force advertisers across categories like food and beverage, lawn care and fashion retail to be more agile with their planning and buying.


A beverage alcohol brand, for example, would typically launch a campaign in the spring to build momentum heading into the summer. But with summer coming earlier, or with heat waves occurring throughout the year, he says marketers will “need to have funds available and be much more nimble to promote their products in a subtle and responsible way.”

Like other industry experts who have spoken to strategy, MacDonald believes brands will also need to shift from celebrating heatwaves, as they have in the past, to taking a more nuanced and measured approach.

He believes there are lessons to be learned from how advertisers handled the pandemic. At the outset of the crisis, many turned off their advertising entirely. Some postponed campaigns, while others shifted their messaging from selling to showing support for the community and frontline workers. Those who continued with their original messaging risked or faced backlash from consumers, MacDonald says.

“That same shift is going to happen with heat [and] with extreme weather events, where beverage brands, soda brands, water brands will need to shift again from a celebratory or on-sell message to one of support.”

Climate change will also influence where advertisers put their dollars.

One might expect OOH to be the most susceptible to the effects of global warming. However, the channel hasn’t been significantly disrupted yet, says Sarah Thompson, chief strategy officer at Theo and a former Mindshare CSO.

She says Mindshare’s latest research on COVID-19 behaviours shows people continue to venture outside as much as they are “inside going down digital rabbit holes and gaming.”

“Yes, we also have heat – but this is vacation season, and we can see from mobile data that Canadians are travelling in our country and further this summer season,” she says. “OOH continues to be relevant in the media mix there.”


Other channels may even experience a boom. For instance, MacDonald believes weather-related content is likely to become a bigger draw for advertisers as Canadians rely increasingly on it to plan their daily activities, whether it comes from an app, a website or news programming.

“I can see it becoming some of the most important information as it relates to a consumer’s day,” he says. “That traffic will drive up rates. Those rates will demand a premium. And it will become a premium digital offering or premium ad offering for brands. That creates a number of new partnership opportunities and partnership categories, even.”

Thompson and MacDonald also noted that advertisers and their agencies will soon need to reckon with the carbon footprints of their media plans. A digital campaign, for instance, has been seen to create up to six tonnes of CO2, according to Thompson.

“If you are an organization with a carbon net zero goal, you need to factor in your media investment,” she says, adding that brands should look to “cut down the layers required to deliver an ad, reduce [the] loads of data from [their] ads and focus on what works.”

To date, consumer awareness of the environmental impacts of digital media and internet surfing remains relatively low, adds MacDonald, and as a result, few clients and agencies have taken tangible steps towards making more green-focused investments.

But with time, consumers will become more informed of the issue and will begin to demand that brands incorporate media into their sustainability plans, he says. Once that happens, ads like the one he saw underground a few years ago – encouraging people to turn off the lights for Earth Day on a backlit OOH board – simply won’t fly.

Images courtesy of Nelson Ndongala, Blake Guidry and Ross Sneddon via Unsplash.