Seeing the ‘Pros’ in Propaganda: Sensationalism in The Day After Tomorrow

The film, The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) (TDAT), is perhaps the most iconic environmental disaster film of all time. The plot revolves around a severe climate disaster, where the Gulf Stream shuts down and the world faces several environmental catastrophes, including a freak storm that freezes the world over in a matter of hours. Such events are scientifically impossible in real life, as climate change acts much more gradually in reality. Thus, while TDAT has garnered much praise for its cinematography and environmental message, it has also been widely criticised by members of the scientific community for its highly sensationalised portrayal of climate change.


TDAT depicts a dramatised version of a climate disaster, using devastating destruction on key landmarks to evoke emotional responses from audiences.


A dilemma thus emerges regarding how the film’s sensationalistic nature affects the delivery of its environmental message. On one hand, several academics argue that sensationalism hampers science communication as messages end up losing their credibility, and audiences become more confused about what climate change entails. This typical view of propaganda deems it to be alarmist discourse that is so exaggerated that it appears farcical. However, others have also claimed that the opposite is true, where sensationalism instead adds persuasive power to messages, engaging and appealing to otherwise uninterested audiences. Leiserowitz found that TDAT heightened concern over global warming and increased audiences’ expressed willingness to act (2004, p. 34).


Thus, it would not do TDAT justice to simply dismiss it as melodrama. Instead, a more insightful take on the film would be one that sees it as necessary propaganda that supports environmental movements. The non-scientist public are generally unaware of the severity of environmental threats and are unlikely to put in effort to educate themselves. Perhaps, the only way to communicate important warnings is to use what they pay attention to and enjoy the most – entertainment and film – to influence their attitudes. In such a case, TDAT, as a propagandistic film, can act not as a mere source of entertainment, but as a persuasive reminder to take environmental dangers seriously.


The Complexities of Propaganda

Before analysing TDAT, we must first better understand the concept of propaganda, and why likening TDAT to it suggests negative implications about the delivery of the film’s environmental message. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines propaganda as “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause”. Its primary purpose is to influence perceptions towards a person, event, or idea, possibly to recruit participation. ‘Propaganda’ obtained its negative connotations mainly from its usage by Germany in World War II, where fascist beliefs were promoted through exaggerated illustrations of capitalist enemies as inferior and dangerous. In his book How Propaganda Works (2017), Jason Stanley described how students who supported the National Socialists saw Hitler’s horrific representations of Jews as “only there for propaganda purposes” (p. 44). Even though Hitler was sincere in his belief that Jews were “less than human”, the students did not recognize this, and merely saw his propaganda as exaggerated persuasion tactics convincing them to go against the Jews. His actions ended up not being seen as a red flag. This shows that drama, whether intentional or not, can cause messages to become less impactful or credible, to a point where people become less concerned with the issue, or end up being deceived or misled by false, fabricated or exaggerated information, just as how propaganda caused students to misjudge Hitler’s true character and intentions.


However, it would be too narrow-minded to not consider the other side of propaganda and sensationalism, where they are viewed as persuasive and useful in aiding science communication. Philip M. Taylor explains in Munitions of the Mind (2003) that propaganda is “neither sinister nor evil … no more than the organization of methods designed to persuade people to think and behave in a certain way” (p. 165). It can act as an instrument of mobilization, to inspire movements and debate. Several institutions have recognised these merits, and occasionally make use of persuasive propaganda in their policies. The Canadian government, for example, commissioned the National Film Board to produce two educational films on the dangers of acid rain, titled ‘Acid From Heaven’ and ‘Acid Rain: Requiem or Recovery?’. The films were a hit, and successfully raised awareness on this environmental issue (Hepburn & Hepburn, 1985, p. 5). This shows that propaganda may not necessarily be harmful, and can be used for positive education and empowerment.


In TDAT, there is some reflection of this debate on the good and bad of sensationalised propaganda. In the film, Hall, a paleoclimatologist, makes numerous attempts to convince the American Vice President, Raymond Becker, that an environmental catastrophe is imminent. However, each time, Becker dismisses his findings as “sarcasm” and “sensationalist” (Emmerich, 2004), despite hard evidence showing the severity of the situation.


Becker is incessantly dismissive of Hall’s warnings, claiming that such ‘drama’ has no place in the political world.


Similar to Stanley’s account on German students, this shows that if audiences perceive information as exaggerated propaganda trying to further a cause, even if the message is sincere, they will dismiss any warnings, and the issue becomes trivialised. Although Hall was not being sensationalist, the huge scale of the catastrophe at hand caused his warnings, while real, to sound unrealistic. People thus ignored him, believing he is spreading false information and creating Hitler-style propaganda.


Climate Change as a Hoax?

It is interesting to note that such dismissive sentiments can be seen in real world reactions to TDAT’s sensationalist take on climate change as well. Surveys indicate that that Americans regard climate change as a “relatively low national priority, despite decades of scientific warnings” (Leiserowitz, 2004, p. 34). This could perhaps be due to the nature of climate change, where the slow pace of global warming creates a communicative difficulty (Von Burg, 2012). Despite a broad scientific consensus that human activities are causing global warming, scientists struggle to convince lawmakers to enact policy change as the long-term environmental effects are usually hard to see and measure, while policies to curb global warming could have more readily apparent economic consequences. As science writer Bill McKibben suggests, “it’s always been hard to get people to take global warming seriously because it happens too slowly” (Von Burg, 2012). Hence, the challenge for scientists is to effectively demonstrate the urgent need for action.


TDAT attempts to resolve this dilemma by using propagandistic tactics to instil anxiety into audiences and raise awareness on global warming. However, some have seen its efforts to not only be unsuccessful, but a disastrous step backwards for science communication. Geologist David Nowell labelled TDAT as a “highly profitable Trojan horse [that] undermines decades of serious research and legitimate concern [for climate change]” (Svoboda, 2014). Janet Sawin, a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, fears that TDAT blew a serious issue out of proportion and caused more scepticism (Svoboda, 2014). Reusswig found that the film’s sensationalised depiction of a weather-induced apocalypse differed greatly from German definitions of climate change, leading many to feel that they “are no longer sure it is real” (2004). Sakellari further adds that TDAT had successfully stirred emotions, but as many perceived the film as mere science fiction, their concern quickly dissipated (2015, p. 831). Thus, it appears that the sensationalism in TDAT had been rather problematic, as the it brought pre-existing perceptions of climate change under scrutiny, confusing audiences and putting the credibility of science communication in jeopardy. 


Dramatic depictions of the apocalypse seem impossible to occur in real life.


Juggling Accuracy and Persuasion in Film

As mentioned above, scientists face the difficulty of convincing the general, non-scientist public of the severity of climate change due to its very gradual pace of change. Hence, there is a dire need to figure out a persuasive communicative method to get people to recognise the threat. A variety of channels have been employed for this purpose, and Heather A. Berlin found that film tends to be especially powerful, as it can reach vast audiences, and has huge potential in terms of visual range and CGI techniques as a tool for science communication (2016, p. 257). Aware of the criticism of sensationalist films, Berlin argues that while “we may often find ourselves responding to films by targeting inaccuracies or oversimplifications”, we should instead judge film as “science storytelling” (2016, pp. 257-259). While screenwriters do dramatize films regularly to attract audiences and tell a good, entertaining “story”, this sensationalism does not necessarily negate any potential value of the film. Regardless of the accuracy of portrayal, the mere exposure of audiences to scientific themes, when incorporated into these films, can help raise awareness and inspire more robust conversation.


It is also worthwhile to point out that while exaggerated, TDAT remained generally scientifically accurate, and illustrated, in a dramatized manner, genuine threats our world was facing. In interviews, director Roland Emmerich insists up-front that for dramatic reasons, events were compressed and exaggerated in the film, and he had to construct his own private theory to squeeze the slow-paced theme of climate change into a two-hour movie (Rahmstorf, n.d.). There are also some scientists that support the film and see its general accuracy. Rahmstorf (n.d.), for example, describes TDAT’s commitment to being realistic as “remarkable”, describing how Hall’s presentation at the United Nations conference in TDAT mirrored his own UN presentation in 1998, where even the setting and diagrams used were exactly the same. In the film, Hall also caveats that his predictions have a long and unpredictable timeline, and a disaster “might occur in a hundred years, or a thousand, or not at all” (Emmerich, 2004). This mirrors statements of real climatologists today, who acknowledge that the climate may suddenly change anytime. It appears that scientists’ ideas are presented realistically in the film, and the fiction starts only when CGI takes charge.


Hall’s UN presentation greatly resembles that of real scientists today.


TDAT’s Immense Success

TDAT unquestionably directed public attention to climate threats and influenced mass audiences. The film was a huge box office success, with cumulative worldwide earnings exceeding $544 million (IMDB, n.d.). Leiserowitz also pointed out how TDAT was much more widely covered than the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (2004, pp. 33-34), indicating that it managed to reach wide audiences and generate interest in climate change, a feat that scientists in the past had failed to achieve. He had also found that those who watched TDAT had significantly higher global warming risk perceptions than those that did not see the film (p. 27). Movie-watchers said TDAT made them more worried about climate change, more inclined to becoming more environmentally conscious, and more willing to change their behaviour and become more politically vocal (pp. 30-34). Overall, Leiserowitz concluded that “a fictional depiction of a catastrophic event can create a teachable moment of heightened public interest and concern” (2009, p. 363). This shows that TDAT was successful in raising awareness and educating the public; and with greater public concern, it could be argued that TDAT also managed to open a window of opportunity for improved environmental communication (Reusswig, Schwarzkopf & Pohlenz, 2004), thus helping scientists deliver the otherwise difficult to accept message of the dangers of global warming.


One way to view such a phenomenon is that TDAT’s sensationalist take on a weather-induced apocalypse introduced a new paradox to popular perceptions of climate change. While most people characterize climate change as gradual and irrelevant to their generation, the film depicts climate change as abrupt, close, and severe, shocking people into taking on a more active and concerned stance towards environmental issues. This thus circumvents the above-mentioned issue of global warming’s gradual effects not being felt by the population at large, helping to highlight the severity of the issue. Perhaps the dramatic nature of film helped to attract otherwise ignorant people to watch TDAT and become a recipient of its environmental message. Sensationalism helped the film’s message to be received as more serious and concerning, which thus led to significant improvements in environmental awareness campaigns.


So is TDAT good or bad propaganda?

It can be seen that TDAT’s propagandistic style has both pros and cons in its delivery of environmental messages to audiences. Just as how propaganda in general has been argued to both belittle and amplify issues, the film has been critiqued on both ends of the spectrum of effectiveness. It is reasonable to say that some may have been more superficial in their consumption of the film, and thus only saw it as a popcorn thriller that makes climate change an exaggerated farce. However, more insightful observers have acknowledged that TDAT has its merits in its depiction of environmental threats, as it uses drama to bring an otherwise mundane and ‘invisible’ threat to life, for the purpose of educating an otherwise unaware public. In their search for entertainment, audiences unconsciously absorbed the message of environmental threats and the need to act.


Oddly enough, this complex understanding of propaganda and sensationalism was summed up relatively well by its controversial source. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler described how “the function of propaganda is not to make an objective study of the truth, in so far as it favours the enemy, and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly” (Hitler, 1981, pp. 155-156). His argument is that propaganda is inherently not designed to be factual and scientifically accurate, but meant to serve the propagandist’s interests and persuade audiences on an argument. While some usages may be insidious and have ulterior motives, there are other examples, including TDAT, that provide a dramatized but fairly accurate depiction of possible threats we may face in the future.


While scientists have criticised the film’s exaggerations, they have also admitted that Emmerich had accurately described several environmental phenomena in the film, some of which ended up happening in real life, years after the film’s release. This shows that TDAT highlighted real concerns and should be acknowledged for its significant contribution in environmental communication, wherein it intentionally makes use of sensationalist scare tactics to raise awareness and spark debate and action to combat climate change. As a form of necessary propaganda, it has helped to shed light on an important, yet frequently overlooked, threat our world faces today.




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