Greenpeace PSA Ad Critique: How Well is Pollution of the Sea Portrayed?

Hello again!!! Featured below is a critique I did for my visual literacy class about a Greenpeace ad that focuses on the pollution of the ocean by human garbage. I think the ad did a good job representing the issue, and I encourage anyone to check out the website for more details on what Greenpeace is doing to help save the ocean.

Like any advertisement, PSA posters intend to send a message to their audience, but unlike typical ads, their messages promote social awareness about an issue and try to change society’s attitude toward that issue. Greenpeace created a PSA ad that targets the overabundance of garbage thrown into oceans, and its message, although no stated, is clear: recycle and save the ocean. This message is made clear through the design of the ad.

In order to promote its issue and change people’s attitudes, Greenpeace uses a simple image and a simple phrase. The image is of the ocean floor. No aquatic life is shown except for some coral and algea, and there is light from the sun shining into the water, indicating that this part of the ocean is deep but still close to the surface of the water. Replacing what would be a pool of fish swimming in formation are glass containers, metal cans, plastic bottles and other miscellaneous trash. Next to the trash are air bubbles that would normally indicate the breathing of fishes. Then in the upper right corner of the ad in a white banner is a short phrase that says: “The greatest wonder of the sea is that it’s still alive.” Beneath this is a website to visit and the Greenpeace logo. As the trash “swims” away from the light towards a darker part of the sea, the viewer understands that this issue will lead to a darker future for all aquatic life. Therefore, the overall mood of the ad is grim because it symbolizes an outside force that is invading the ocean and threatening the lives of plants and animals.

The artist uses several elements and principles of design to create the overall visual effect and mood for the ad. First, there is a contrast in the forms shown in the image; while the coral, algae and rocks are very organic, natural forms, the trash is composed of varied geometric, man-made shapes. This contrast illustrates that the trash does not belong in the natural setting of the ocean, and, therefore, the trash is an invasive “species” that is slowly but surely taking over the ocean. Then there is a gradual darkening of the ocean water. The light filtering through the ocean in the upper left corner of the ad catches the eye of the viewer, and as the viewer follows the trail of trash, the turquoise color of the ocean gets increasingly darker. This use of color symbolizes that the accumulation of trash is leading to the death of oceanic species. The soft curve in the flow of the trash as well as its grouped formation suggest that the bottles and cans are moving like a pool of fish through the ocean. This artistic movement of the garbage further suggests how these inanimate objects have become an animate “species” that is replacing the dominant, natural life forms of the sea. Because the flow of garbage cuts through the center of the ad, it is obvious that the trash is the focal point, emphasizing the contamination of the ocean by human waste. In understanding that the death of oceanic life is a result of people’s habits, the ad then includes a website to visit in order to gain information on how to change this condition.

In making human waste the emphasis in the ad, viewers interpret that they are at fault for killing aquatic plants and animals; people are supposed to feel responsible and guilty. In order to rid themselves of such guilt, viewers should visit the website given in the ad so they can educate themselves on how to change their habits and, therefore, save the sea. In terms of semiotics, the signifier in the ad is the “wonders of the sea” mentioned in the ad’s phrase; such language translates to images of brightly colored fish and coral, big, majestic mammals like whales or sharks as well as odd-looking bottom-feeding fish. In thinking of these things, we connote the existence of life in the sea and the extraordinary, mysterious possibilities of nature. However, our meaning of the sea (vast, mysterious, colorful, filled with life, etc.) is juxtaposed against the dirty, smelly waste products of humans (the garbage). The paradigmatic relationship between these two juxtaposed images is that they do not belong together. In other words, it is not natural and, therefore, harmful to have garbage in the sea, and this toxic relationship presented in the ad demonstrates a pollution myth. Simply, if garbage is in the sea, animals and plants will die, leading to less diversity in the ocean and less effectiveness of the ocean to serve as a habitat and to provide oxygen for humans. As a consumer and disposer of products like cans, plastic bottles and glass containers, I acknowledge the incredible impact that human waste has on the environment, and as a result, I am a firm believer in recycling. I recycle not only bottles and cans but also cardboard, batteries, grocery bags, paper products and ink cartridges; Greenpeace’s ad further justified my firm stance on recycling all of these items.

With its effective application of the elements and principles of design and semiotics, Greenpeace presented the issue of oceanic pollution really well. The contrast in forms and color, movement, and emphasis on human waste successfully illustrate that garbage is invading the ocean in larger amounts, replacing aquatic life and destroying the beauty of the ocean. I did not have to look at the ad several times to understand this message because the image was simple and, therefore, could be interpreted easily. It is also a message of great value. Pollution plays into larger issues of preserving the environment in a time of global warming, deforestation and over-consumption so many people are concerned with how they can change the current conditions. In my opinion, the image of the garbage swimming through the water like fishes is so strong that, even if a viewer is not an environmentalist, he/she would be interested to see how Greenpeace is responding to the issue and how individuals can help too. Overall, this ad was designed so well that it not only communicated a valuable message but provoked me enough to check out the website, leading to further action on this issue; therefore, the PSA ad fulfilled its intentions: to motivate viewers to want to learn more about stopping pollution in the sea.


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