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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Dueling Coal Ads

Air Date: Week of March 27, 2009

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(Courtesy of This is Reality)

The coal industry says clean coal technology is the answer to America’s energy crisis. Environmental groups say clean coal doesn't exist. Both groups are spending millions of dollars on television ads and youtube videos to make their point. Communications Professor John Carroll of Boston University tells host Bruce Gellerman who’s ahead in the campaign duel.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: The controversy over coal is playing out not only in the courts and government agencies, but on television screens as well.

This commercial, by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity features a familiar voice to support its cause.

OBAMA: This is America. We figured out how to put a man on the moon in ten years. You can’t tell me we can’t figure out how to burn coal that we mine right here in the United States of America and make it work. We can do that.

GELLERMAN: That was candidate Barack Obama during the run up to the presidential election.

A coalition of anti-coal groups have countered with their own TV ads and joining me to referee the competing coal commercials is John Carroll. He teaches Mass Communication at Boston University. Hi John.

CARROLL: Hi Bruce.

GELLERMAN: You know there were the Mac computer versus the PC ads and there were duel cola ads, Pepsi versus Coke. Now there’s the coal ads that are doing combat on TV screens. Do commercial confrontations work in changing people’s minds?

CARROLL: It all depends. A lot of times they just cancel each other out. In this situation, what they’re trying to do is educate and persuade at the same time. They’re also talking to four different audiences basically. They’re talking to lawmakers. They’re talking to the general public. They’re talking to true believers. And they’re talking to the media. They want all of those as their audience and all of them to pay attention to the ads so that when this does come up on the radar screen for most Americans, they have a preconceived notion of what the sides are in this debate and who’s on firmer ground.

GELLERMAN: Let’s listen to one of the latest ones from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.


The coal industry promotes its product as the most affordable and abundant source of energy available domestically. (Photo: American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity)

[MACHINE SOUNDS]

VOICE OVER: In America, there’s an energy you can feel.

[MACHINE SOUNDS]

VOICE OVER: Energy created by American workers. And American jobs. Jobs that will get our economy back on it’s feet, and make us more competitive. Jobs powered by affordable energy, generated by our most abundant fuel. Coal. The source of America’s power.

CARROLL: Yeah, in hard economic times, obviously, you know appeal to jobs and the economy is going to be something that’s going to get people’s attention. And I think one of the things that you find in these ads, is a real sort of borrowing of the Obama message and the Obama sort of spirit of hope and change and I think that they’re trying to ride his coattails to some degree.

GELLERMAN: Well that’s interesting, John. You know there is one of these coal industry ads that really does take off on the Obama “yes, we can” message. Give this a listen.

[MUSIC]

VOICE OVER: I believe in the future.

VOICE OVER: In the future.

VOICE OVER: I believe in protecting the environment.

VOICE OVER: I believe in energy independence.

VOICE OVER: I believe that meeting a challenge

VOICE OVER: … brings out the best in us.

VOICE OVER: I believe.

VOICE OVER: I believe in technology.

VOICE OVER: I believe….

VOICE OVER: .. we will do this.

VOICE OVER: I believe.


Around the holidays the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity used lumps of coal singing songs to convey their message (Photo: American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity)

VOICE OVER: We can be energy independent. We can continue to use our most abundant energy source cleanly and responsibly. We can. We will. Clean coal. America’s power.

GELLERMAN: So, John, what do you believe?

CARROLL: Well, I believe that this is a preemptive strike. From that stand point it’s very much in the Bush administration spirit, but what it’s using is the language of the Obama administration. And very much trying to steal the thunder of the environmentalists.

GELLERMAN: Well the environmentalists have formed a group called the Reality Coalition. It’s the Sierra Club, the Alliance for Climate Protection, the NRDC and the League of Conservation Voters among them. They produced some interesting ads. This one was directed by the Cohen brothers – you know, the guys that make the films. And it shows a slick salesman in a house, a kind of Leave it to Beaver house, and they have a spray can of clean coal air freshener.


Environmental group This is Reality uses humor to convey their message about clean coal. (Courtesy of This is Reality)

VOICE OVER: It smells so clean.

VOICE OVER: Uh huh.

SALESMAN: Is regular clean clean enough for your family? Not when you can have clean coal clean.

[MUSIC]

SALESMAN: Clean coal harnesses the awesome power of the word “clean”

[MUSIC]

SALESMAN: To make it sound like the cleanest clean there is.

[COUGHING]

SALESMAN: Clean coal is supported by the coal industry, the most trusted name in coal.

[MUSIC]

GELLERMAN: And as he’s going around spraying this stuff it’s coming out black and the kids are coughing and turning, you know, sooty black.

CARROLL: Yeah, its very clever, it’s witty, it’s smart, it’s sort of post-modern Cohen brothers at their Cohen-est. But really, in a way, it could be counter productive. Those kinds of ads, as smart as they are, need a lot of exposure. Otherwise people don’t really get what they’re trying to say. And just by saying “clean coal is sponsored by the coal industry, the most trusted name is coal,” I mean, that’s a line that can easily backfire. In a way, the coal industry is doing a better job of putting forward a straightforward message, and I think that unless they spend a lot of money on these Cohen brother ads, I think that they might have the potential to backfire on them.

GELLERMAN: John, TV ads don’t come cheap. Neither to produce nor air. Do you know what they’re spending on these things?

CARROLL: Well, by one estimate the coal industry spent last year somewhere between 35 and 48 million on an overall marketing campaign, probably about 18 million of it, according to this estimate went for advertising, television advertising in particular. I don’t have any estimate from the environmentalists, the anti coal side. Their campaign has been characterized as a multi-million dollar campaign. It will be online, it will be print, it will be broadcast. The coal industry has said that the anti coal people have spent coincidentally about 48 million dollars on their campaign so far. That’s a convenient figure for them to bring up, and, you know, I would take that with a grain of coal, obviously. But I think that the issue here is this is not so much a David and Goliath as a Goliath and Goliath.


(Courtesy of This is Reality)

GELLERMAN: The Reality Coalition, this anti coal group has another advertisement. This one’s called smudge. And let’s listen to that one.

VOICE OVER: At Coal-ergy we view climate change as a very serious threat to our business. That’s why we’ve made it our primary goal to spend a large sum of money on an advertising effort to help bring out and complicate to truth about coal.

[MUSIC]

VOICE OVER: The fact is, coal isn’t dirty. We think it’s clean.

[SNIFF]

VOICE OVER: Smells good too. So don’t worry about climate change. Leave that up to us.

VOICE OVER: In reality, there’s no such thing as clean coal.

GELLERMAN: And the visuals are very important in this one – you really do have to pay attention. The guy is dressed up like a CEO and he’s got his boardroom and when he smells the coal, he gets a smudge on his noise like a clown.

CARROLL: Yeah, it’s a nice little spoof, but again, when you isolate some of the things that they say in there – they’re saying exactly the opposite of what they mean. And the other issue is this whole idea of there’s no such thing as clean coal – that’s an uphill battle. The truth of the matter is that there are four or five definitions of clean coal. And you have Barack Obama basically setting aside money in a stimulus bill to invest in clean coal research. Public events are contradicting this campaign day after day and so I think it’s an uphill battle for them, and they may have picked the wrong strategy here.

GELLERMAN: Well, John, thanks a lot. I really appreciate it.

CARROLL: My pleasure Bruce, thanks.

GELLERMAN: John Carroll’s an assistant professor of mass communication at the Boston University College of Communication.

 

Links

Environmental group This is Reality

American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity

 

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