Interview: Humphrey Milles on his People VS Air Pollution campaign

Humphrey Milles hopes to launch a nationwide publicity campaign on the dangers of air pollution – and he’s set up a crowdfunder which is already at an impressive £23,000.

He spoke to about why he believes awareness campaigns work, and why the government closing its public information body, the Central Office in Information (COI) in 2011, was ‘catastrophic’ for the public’s knowledge of air pollution.

What’s your background and why did you decide to launch the campaign?

I’ve worked in the film, advertising and music industries for just over 20 years, on many of the government ads before the Central Office of Information (COI) was closed down in 2011.

Since then I’ve not been able to ignore it or forget about it, for better or for worse. I’ve felt compelled to do something to help fix the problem or reduce it. Raising awareness of how bad this stuff is for our health seems to be the best thing I can do. As Abraham Lincoln said ‘Government rests in Public opinion, whoever can change public opinion, can change the government.’

Like many people, I’ve been trying to change my lifestyle but found it difficult for a number of reasons. You still can’t own an electric car where I live. There are no on-street charge points or allocated parking, and although I do cycle as much as possible, it’s still a very dangerous game in London.

I was hit by a car in October and hospitalised for 4 days with 3 broken ribs and internal bleeding. Thankfully this was on the way back from dropping my daughter at school and not the way there.

I set up Central Office of Public Interest (COPI) in 2018 so that people in our industries could pool their skills, talent and know how to produce and run campaigns on issues they care about that affect them and the public directly, and decided we had to focus on air pollution for the foreseeable due to the severity of the problem. COPI is a way of harnessing the formidable power of advertising to shift awareness & society in a positive progressive direction, and help make things better for people rather than just selling them more stuff.

Why is advertising the most effective tool to spread awareness on air pollution?

Advertising Works. This is an immutable fact. It raises awareness, changes behaviour, alters opinions and can affect the way a society works. It’s the industry of influence, persuasion and communication, and the guys I managed to get on this campaign are some of the best there are.  People don’t realise how effective it is, but a good campaign can change cultural norms and attitudes. It’s why the biggest companies in the world spend so much money on it. We just need to use it for ourselves, which is what I’m trying to do with COPI and this whole movement.

What effect has the closure of the COI had on the public’s knowledge of health issues?

Its had a catastrophic effect in my opinion. Our information environment is rapidly becoming shaped almost entirely by commercial interests. Corporate PR, advertising and commercial lobbying dictate government policy, dominate the news pages and form the media. Information relating to environmental, social and economic issues which are essential for the public to make well-balanced judgements and rational decisions is frequently missed, overlooked or ignored as instead the public are encouraged to consume more and think less.

With Clean Air Zones and the 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, are the government taking air pollution seriously?

They are absolutely not taking this issue seriously. You only need to look at the legal action Client Earth have been taking to see their ongoing failures. Not only this but council funding is being cut in half each year by central government, so they can’t hope to change the infrastructure as quickly as is necessary with even less funding available to work with.

The 2040 ban on sales of new diesel cars is also about 15 years too late considering the scale of our problem.

What messages about air pollution are not currently being conveyed to the public?

Everything from the toxicity levels inside cars being up to five times higher, to the effects it has on children’s lung development. Diesel emissions were classified a group 1 cause of lung cancer by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2012, yet still, 95% of the population still do not know this. This is pure negligence on behalf of government.

Have you had any conversations with anyone in government about the campaign? And would they consider helping to fund it?

I spoke with Health Minister Matt Hancock about the campaign we shot last year around Queens Park. He was quite receptive and forwarded it on to Michael Gove, which I’m sure was ignored accordingly! I don’t think for a minute the party would consider funding a campaign like this as the issue represents a colossal failure on behalf of government that they’d much rather keep out of the public attention.  I’ve spoken with a number of industry and government insiders about the reasons spending on these kinds of campaigns has been slashed, one department official told me ‘the worst thing you can possibly do with a government ad campaign is generate a PMQ about it’ which is somewhat ironic. It’s just not in their interests to bring attention to this problem.

What policies would you like to see the government implement to reduce toxic air pollution?

– Immediate legislation on idling, and an awareness campaign!

– Emergency council funding so that they can make the infrastructure changes to encourage cycling, electric cars and bring in electric buses (electric car chargers and allocated parking for EV owners on every street, bike hangers on every street, much safer cycle routes in every city, and subsidising bicycles would be a good idea)

– Drastically increasing the incentives to buy EVs.

– Tougher emissions testing and a system that actually works. Ours does not.

– Enforced car industry buybacks on old polluting vehicles, of which there are hundreds of thousands.

– Subsidising converting to electric, and funding innovation in that area.

The solutions to this problem are now endless, we just need the political will so that people can make the changes necessary.


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