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S.L. ad agency embraces Utah’s wilderness cause

SHARE S.L. ad agency embraces Utah’s wilderness cause

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, then the debate over Utah wilderness just got encyclopedic.

Wilderness has become more visual than ever, thanks to a slick media campaign donated to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance by one of the world's foremost advertising agencies."That old saying about a picture worth a thousand words, it really is true in this case because when you see the lands (proposed for wilderness) you have to be crazy not to want to save them," said Eric Bute, creative director for EURO RSCG Dahlin-Smith-White in Salt Lake City.

Which is why the agency - an industry leader in the arena of high-tech ads for companies like Intel and Iomega - has now claimed Utah wilderness as an environmental cause worthy of its creative attention. To date, the agency has donated well over $200,000 in time and services to the SUWA campaign.

What Utahns will see in the weeks ahead are two 30-second television ads with stunning redrock scenery - the ads forgo the remote west desert country that lacks red-rock appeal - and two very simple, quiet messages. One reads, "It's God's country. But who's protecting it? Sixty percent is gone forever. Preserve Utah's wilderness. Please."

The second reads, "We took pictures. Sadly, they'll probably last longer. Sixty percent is gone forever. Preserve Utah's wilderness, please."

"They are poignant lines," Bute said, "that are admittedly more of a soft sell than what SUWA is known for. But it works because finally, after all these years of fighting over wilderness, we can see what this debate is all about."

Aside from helping to preserve God's country, the willingness of Dahlin-Smith-White to embrace the wilderness cause was a godsend to SUWA, a largely volunteer environmental organization with limited funds and a monumental political battle ahead of it. In fact, the ad agency usually charges more for one print advertisement in a computer magazine than what SUWA has in its entire annual operating budget.

SUWA came to the agency because of its reputation for non-traditionalism. Not only was it known for donations to environmental causes, but it was built by gadflies who eschew corporate three-piece suits in favor of T-shirts and jeans - the uniform of the day for any self-respecting conservationist.

Furthermore, they love to take risks. And politically speaking, it doesn't get any riskier than jumping aboard SUWA's wilderness proposal.

SUWA has spent the past couple of years conducting a re-inventory of all Utah lands that qualify as wilderness. But how could it sell what has been billed as a "citizens wilderness" proposal in a climate where the political establishment was adamantly opposed?

About three months ago, SUWA approached Darrell Smith, one of the founders of the agency and an avid outdoorsman. Smith was willing to commit. So was Bute and agency vice president Casey Jones.

"We are passionate about Utah," Jones said, "and when Darrell asked us if we would be willing to spend weekends and after-hours on the project, we said absolutely. We are committed to the environment, and this gave us the opportunity to do something about it."

Bute, who calls himself "definitely not a tree hugger," began to research the project. He met with SUWA and was thoroughly bored to the point of tears with all the talk of inventories.

Then he saw the photographs.

"It wasn't until that point I really saw it was something I could be passionate about, something I could really believe in," he said. "I could not believe these places were not already protected. It boggles my mind even today."

Bute's approach to creating the campaign mirrored his own discovery. His research found that people had no real concept of what wilderness was or what lands needed to be protected or why.

"People said they wanted to see the places. They said, `You don't need to push any of your beliefs or propaganda on me. Just show me what it is you are talking about and let me make up my own mind,' " Bute said.

The advertising campaign chose that exact strategy, operating with the basic assumption that if people see the visual images of the lands SUWA is trying to protect, then the decision to set aside wilderness will be easy.

But in the real world, "easy" is not a word generally associated with the wilderness debate. For decades, the issue has polarized the state. Conservationists were once asking for 5.7 million acres, but with the re-inventory they will be asking for a whole lot more.

Utah's congressional delegation has successfully thwarted attempts to designate large chunks of the state as wilderness, preferring wilderness in the range of 1 million to 2 million acres. The Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over the lands in question, has come in with a 3 million-acre proposal, but it also is conducting a re-inventory.

At the other end of the spectrum are a majority of rural county commissioners who want no wilderness at all. They believe designating wilderness will destroy their economic livelihoods built upon ranching, mining and logging.

The Dahlin-Smith-White campaign clearly puts the agency on opposite sides of the fence from Utah's political establishment. But it doesn't really care.

"For good or bad, we believe in the cause SUWA is fighting for," Bute said. "If that hurts us, then so be it. But we believe in their product and what it is they are selling, as we do with all of our clients."