In Robert McFarlane’s epic new book ‘Underland’ there is a description of what must be the most significant and complex marketing challenge of all time.
Here's the background, courtesy of McFarlane himself:
“Deep in the bedrock of Olkiluoto Island in southwest Finland a tomb is under construction. The tomb is intended to outlast not only the people who designed it, but also the species that designed it. It is intended to maintain its integrity without future maintenance for 100,000 years, able to endure a future ice age.”
This ‘tomb’ is where the Finnish government intend to dispose of the highly dangerous nuclear waste that would otherwise risk contaminating the world.
Writing to the future
But the problem is this. As McFarlane notes nuclear waste has a radioactive half-life of a hundred thousand years. It will still be fatally toxic to the planet even when (potentially) every existing language on earth has ceased to be spoken, written or understood.
How, then, can the people constructing the vaults for its storage create signs that signal its danger to any future humans who might encounter it? Will the yellow and black 'propeller' symbol that currently signifies radioactive waste have any currency as a warning in that distant age? Likewise, a skull and crossbones might be our own visceral shorthand for mortal danger, but will it mean the same in a thousand centuries' time?
How to signal danger, not treasure
And here's another question.
How do you signal DANGER and not TREASURE to those who might not share your language or visual symbolism?
The architects of the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, of course, did not manage that particular challenge well.
How do you stop the contents of a site from appearing intensely valuable to future subterranean explorers simply by dint of the trouble you've taken to protect it.
Apparently, the Finnish government has set the challenge to creatives and futurists to come up with a solution to this extraordinary problem.
When marketing is myth making
One strategy that has been suggested is to try and embed these warnings into human consciousness on a mythic level.
Just as the story of Noah’s flood is thought to be a mythic retelling of a real stone age tsunami and a potential warning of the perils of similar future catastrophe (c.f. global warming) - so we need to create and share a legendary narrative so powerful it can exist and be understood through deep time.
But can we really create a message so powerful that it will live on to convince our ancestors in a distant age never to meddle with the Pandora’s box that is our nuclear waste?
And if so, how do we do it? What channels do we use? What marketing tools can we adopt?
Presumably digital ad spend, a high profile TV commercial campaign or a series of curated blog posts is just not going to cut it for a message that needs to live through all eternity.
But whoever can nail this one will snare quite a prize.
With the future of all life on earth at stake, this particular marketing challenge has some significant ROI attached to its success.
How can we convince our ancestors in some distant age never to meddle with the Pandora’s box that is our nuclear waste? Whoever can nail this marketing challenge will snare quite a prize - and we're not talking about some perspex trophy handed out by a comedian in a hot, hotel ballroom.