Memo to Gore: Don’t call coal ‘clean’ seven times in your ad

Al Gore and a bunch of enviro groups have launched the “Reality” Coalition to tell the public there is no such thing as clean coal.

Their inaugural ad violates a central rule of messaging, rhetoric, and psychology: Don’t keep repeating a strong word the other side is trying to push.That is not just a basic tenet of the 25-century old art of persuasion, but a well-demonstrated principle of modern psychology. Here’s the ad:

“Clean” is a very strong word here for three reasons. First, it is short and simple — a key feature of effective rhetoric (see here). Second, GOP word guru Frank Luntz spent a lot of time and money test words and reported in his infamous Straight Talk memo:

The three words Americans are looking for in an environmental policy, they are “safer”, “cleaner”, and “healthier”.

Third, of course, “clean coal” uses one of the most memorable figures of speech, alliteration. That is perhaps redundant: The figures of speech were specifically designed to be memorable.

So if you want to destroy the clean coal myth, you don’t run an ad that repeats “clean coal” five times verbally and two times in writing.

I would have said the mistake in this ad is basic stuff, but even the sophisticated Obama team repeatedly made the same mistake (see here and here). So let me review again why you can’t debunk a myth by verbally repeating it, why linguist George Lakoff titled his best-selling book, Don’t think of an elephant.

If I say that to you, you will think of an elephant. Negatives carry very little rhetorical weight.

This notion is so core to rhetoric that the ancient Greeks even had a figure of speech named for it — apophasis, (from the Greek word for “to deny”), the figure of speech that emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, that stresses an idea or image by negating it. As Shakespeare has Marc Antony say to the Roman citizens in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after Caesar’s assassination, “Sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny.” He wants — and gets — a mutiny.

This is not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by numerous recent psychological studies. In one 1990 study, undergraduate students observed sugar from a labeled commercial container as it was poured into two bottles. They then labeled one bottle “sugar” and the other “Not Sodium Cyanide.” Students avoided eating sugar from the second bottle even though they had watched it being poured and “even though they had arbitrarily placed that label on it” and knew the label was accurate–that it was not sodium cyanide. Such is the power of words or, rather, the insidious lack of power of the word ‘not.’

Even more insidious, “when people find a claim familiar because of prior exposure but do not recall the original context or source of the claim, they tend to think that the claim is true,” as noted a 2005 journal article, “How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations,” which concluded

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments, older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a 3 day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

As explained in a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach“:

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Another useful article is ” ‘I am not guilty’ vs ‘I am innocent’ ” by Ruth Mayo et al in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004, which found that for many people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time:

“If someone says, ‘I did not harass her,’ I associate the idea of harassment with this person,” said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. “Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.”If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind,” she added. “Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11.”

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.

It takes a lot of message discipline to do this. But then again, it takes a lot of message discipline to win any major political debate.

If you want to have people associate coal with “dirty” then come up with a new slogan and, of course, some supporting visual images would help.

Bottom Line: Good idea, bad execution.

More on the ad and the coalition at ThinkProgress.

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38 Responses to Memo to Gore: Don’t call coal ‘clean’ seven times in your ad

  1. paulm says:

    The big migration has started…

    CUBA: Coastal Dwellers to Relocate Away from the Sea

    SANTA CRUZ DEL SUR, Cuba, Dec 3 (IPS) – She was born, grew up and lived all her life just a few steps from the sea, in the part of the city that everyone knows simply as La Playa (the beach). Although she was lucky enough to return to a home and belongings that withstood Hurricane Paloma’s mighty waves, Iramis Rodríguez has made up her mind to move inland.

    With the increase in cyclone intensity and sea-level rise projections, the Cuban government has recognised that the only solution for these communities is to relocate further inland. The decision is already being implemented in Santa Cruz del Sur, with the construction of temporary housing for those left homeless by the hurricane.

  2. Dano says:

    ‘Clean coal’ is the tactic to gain acceptance. Welcome to politics.

    If you don’t like the tactic, Joe, you should come up with something different that is resonant, will galvanize, then motivate for change.



    [JR: Not sure which “Joe” this is addressed to, but I don’t see how it applies to what I wrote.]

  3. alex says:

    OT, but back on the subject of bark beetles. Back in 1967 we had a major outbreak of dutch eml disease in the UK which was caused by a strain of bark beetle accidentally imported from the US. It all but wiped out elms in the UK (although my parents have a fine garden shed made from elm which still stands today, due to the temporary glut of high quality elm timber).

    The cause of the outbreak was man-made but not down to AGW, which hadn’t really got started in 1967. If it happened in 2008 would everyone have blamed it on CO2?

    I am full on board with AGW but always ready to be sceptical when people hang inappropriate decorations on the GW christmas tree.

  4. george w says:

    Joe used the phrase “clean coal” five times in this post. After I read it all I could think of was “clean coal” — got to get me some of that.

  5. Doug says:

    They may be starting with the assumption that “clean coal” is a meme that’s already out there — the damage is done. “Clean coal” is already a unified phrase.

    However, it only has a vague inherent association (unlike “not sodium cyanide”).

    What they seem to be trying to do is to “repurpose” the term, associating it with what they want it to mean (which happens to be the truth). That is, they’re trying drive this idea:

    “clean coal” = nothing

    into people’s heads. Thus you repeat “clean coal = nothing” again and again. If done right, when people later hear “clean coal”, that concept of “nothing” (or “fake” or “lie”) is the first thing the term evokes in their minds.

    The weakness of this ad is that the “nothing” part is not entirely clear. Ok, we see a wilderness. That’s nature, right? Clean coal = nature?

    That’s the flaw. They should have used a visual that is unequivocally “nothingness”, such as an empty warehouse, or even the guy floating into a vacuum.

    [JR: You are correct that if a meme is already seared (i.e. branded, literally) into people’s minds then you can’t replace it you must destroy it. You can’t destroy it with “nothingness.” You need a more powerful image to stick in people’s minds — I’m not suggesting this but “clean coal crap” would work because it piggybacks on the original branding, but makes people think of crap whenever they hear clean coal. It’d need a LOT of advertising. Plus good imagery.]

  6. David B. Benson says:

    And what about ‘not not clean coal’. :-)

  7. Shelly T. says:

    I have a background in advertising and I completely agree with this critique of this ad. The best ads are short and to the point and don’t make the viewer wonder what your point is. To a person who thinks there really IS such a thing as clean coal, this ad will make no sense. Heck, I didn’t even understand it. Should a person really have to wonder what the message of the ad is? That clean coal is outside, that it’s involved with wind somehow, or what is the message here?

    A more effective ad would be to show how dirty coal is. Filthy dirty. Make the ad completely black and white so people think of dark dirty coal mines, fill it with dirty, coal-covered sad-looking every day people, (not miners), and make the sky dark and stormy looking and only at the end show the slogan “there’s no such thing as clean coal”. Animate it with that cool animation that looks like a moving drawing. A charcoal drawing. Show coal smoke pumping into the sky.

    Now is someone going to send suggestions for a better ad to Al Gore? I love this new direction but I wonder what took them so long.

  8. Shelly T. says:

    >>”Third, of course, “clean coal” uses one of the most memorable figures of speech, alliteration. ”

    That reminds me of Sarah Palin during the campaign — in one of her stump speeches she actually called natural gas “clean and green”. I probably remember that because 1) it pissed me off due to its incredibly dishonesty and 2) it rhymed.

  9. Bill Reiswig says:

    Every knows that Coal is filthy dirty without telling them.

    BUT… How would we know that the point of the ad is that such a thing as C**** Coal does not exist if you do not use the phrase?

    to a certain point the damage has already been done with this phrase…

    SO the the 2nd best option (other than NOT using the phase C**** Coal ) would be to denigrate the phrase or idea in a memorable way.

    Which this ad does pretty well, I think.

    So I would give this add about C**** Coal an 9 out of 10.


    ( P.S. notice I did not once use the phase C**** Coal in my entry….)

  10. Ronald says:

    I also thought the ad was ineffective. But also, who is the decision maker that they are trying to reach and what is the decision that they want the decision maker to make.

  11. Andrea says:

    Thank you Joe and thank you Shelly T. This ad is so poorly done it makes my conspiracy theory alarms go off. Except I don’t believe in conspiracies. Coal is dirty. Always. No exceptions. Ever. In watching the ad I was wondering why this guy in a clean white shirt was wandering through this clean, windswept (altho’ a bit barren to be sure…) landscape. And when he said “The machinery is a bit loud.” I thought there was something wrong with my speakers…it just kinda looked he was hiking in Arizona or something. Utterly confusing. Hope some of these critiques make it back to Al Gore et al.

  12. Shelly T. says:

    People do not know coal is dirty. The Republicans have been saying “clean coal” for 8 years. I attended the RNC to protest it and people were handing out boxes of “Clean Coal” mints. I’m not kidding. These were accompanied by giant “Clean Coal” buttons. People were wearing them. No, people don’t know coal is dirty. They think we now use new, improved clean coal.

    The woman in the ad on TV where she walks across the map and says coal is our future is played on TV 20+ times a day. I see it constantly. The message of that ad is obvious: Coal is America’s future and it will make us all happy. She’s smiling and looks modern and capable, not hapless.

    And the best that they can do so far is this guy wandering around outside and shouting. The pro-coal people have a multi-million dollar campaign. They are going all out with their “America’s energy” campaign. See this article from the WAPO:

    And this coalition page

    This campaign and this ad also need a strong graphic visual. A little bird or a guy in a helmet isn’t going to do it. The pro-coal people have their plug stuck in lump of coal. That’s a powerful image. This campaign needs to do better than a bird and the word “reality”. btw, Is the bird dead? His eye is an X, yet he’s standing upright. Maybe he’s dead and stuffed, but you can’t tell, because nothing in this ad makes sense, not even the logo. “Reality” indeed. . . . . . Reality would be to get someone to sink a few million into a real campaign.

  13. Rick says:

    Pretty funny – This could be an effective pro clean coal ad if they just change the last 3 seconds.

    Clean coal tech looks like…. the great outdoors – or something like that.

    interesting post

  14. Bill Hewitt says:

    Wow – such erudition from an energy wonk! Great read. I find Lakoff’s earlier “Moral Politics” fascinating. It’s less about cognitive linguistics and more about the underlying psychology of how people come to see things.

    I also find this ad a little underwhelming, as I have found the Repower America ads. As noted above, though, the general thinking here is great and welcome. See the heart of The Reality Coalition’s website:

  15. Anne Polansky says:

    I say we call coal “chunks of solid black death” or maybe “wind turbine killer”

  16. Jfk says:

    Gee, I dunno, Joe. I see your point. But let’s see how a series of ads debunking the clean coal myth might play out. As an opening move this as isn’t dead on serious and as unsettling as the subject deserves…but it’s kinda amusing in a Colbert sort of way. Especially the cut to the hard hat guy taking notes and the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk call. Forgive me, I chuckled at that.

    [JR: The ad really only “works” for the people it isn’t aimed at — people who already don’t like clean coal. I also agree the final image is counterproductive.]

  17. Doug350 says:

    Shelly T has expressed my thoughts exactly … no need repeating … now I’m going off the deep end …

    So, what if we were to coin a non-defamatory phrase that sounds menacing, then repeat it over and over and over with the charcoal animations Shelly describes so creatively, making connections to all the bad things about coal (cradle to cradle), in a sour gravelly narration, spewing implicit unsavory sulfuric sounding badness of a PYROCLASTIC inferno … ok … so much for the theatric set up … CLASTIC COAL … simple, vague, sounds menacing, essentially meaningless, but conjuring up PYROCLASTIC badness.

    And it sounds like “classic” which has other connotations.

    Would that REFRAME the issue to our advantage? Imagine …

    CLASTIC COAL destroys mountain tops … CLASTIC COAL kills fish and critters … CLASTIC COAL robs future generations of finite valuable resources … CLASTIC COAL spews greenhouse gases … CLASTIC COAL makes asthmatic lungs … CLASTIC COAL will kill millions of people, animals and plant species … CLASTIC COAL stifles vital industrial innovation … CLASTIC COAL derails economic progress … and on and on and on.

    Just an idea … CLASTIC COAL …

  18. David B. Benson says:

    clas·tic Pronunciation (klstk)
    1. Separable into parts or having removable sections: a clastic anatomical model.
    2. Geology Made up of fragments of preexisting rock; fragmental.


    so ‘clastic’ doesn’t quite fit for preesisting geological uses, but otherwise it is close enough that almost nobody would object.

  19. Linda S says:

    I really think Joe’s ‘clean coal crap’ is the best buster of the group — but would it pass FCC guidelines? Maybe ‘clean coal clap-trap’ would get the same message across — negative images associated with ‘clap,’ ‘trap’ and the mental abbreviation to ‘crap.’ I do love the ‘clastic coal’ associations and Shelly’s black and white images. In life, most things are shades of gray, but when it comes to coal, the choice is black or white. Don’t be suckered in by the clean coal clap trap!

  20. Johnny Rook says:

    Great analysis, Joe.

    What about taking an adjective like dirty or filthy and blending it with coal to form a new noun: dirtycoal or filthycoal. I favor dirtycoal. Then one stops use of the word coal altogether instead always writing dirtycoal instead of coal, as in:

    “If we continue to burn dirtycoal there is no way we will be able to stabilize C02 emissions by 2050.”

    By making a new noun instead of an adjective plus a noun one removes the option of putting clean in front of it and attaches the idea of dirt permanently to it.

    It was similar reasoning, inspired by something that you wrote on this topic months ago, that led me to coin the term Climaticide as a replacement for anthropogenic global warming. I wanted a word that combined climate, which is value neutral, with, in this case, a suffix that would elicit the idea of destruction and, hence, a negative emotional response. It works really well. Everyone instantly understands what you mean when they hear it.

    Blogging for the future at Climaticide Chronicles

  21. Joe says:


    Clean coal clap trap isn’t bad.

    I’ll do you one better. Put in an “accidental” typo: Clean coal crap trap. Though “clap” gets you some “consonance” to go with the alliteration.

    I’ll have to think on this over night.

  22. JCH says:

    Clean coalon doesn’t mean you would want to eat it off your plate.

  23. Jay Alt says:

    I have a feeling it will look more like this:

    see last paragraph

  24. Bill R says:







    CLEAN YOUR COAL ROOM! (listen to NPR piece on this Ad)

    OK, I tried.

  25. Tom Raftery says:

    Great post Joe and agree 100% with what you say.

    One minor quibble – you used the term yourself in the title of this post.

    Shouldn’t you have titled it simply – “Dirty Coal” ?

    [JR: Thanks. I used the term because I wasn’t doing an ad aimed at undecideds — I was doing a post aimed at the cognoscenti. Only several thousand people read a typical post of mine.]

  26. Anne Polansky says:

    OK, can’t help but do more ad campaign brainstorming …..

    How about, “Clean Coal is Nothing but Fool’s Coal”

    Or this take off from a vintage -70’s ad for Wisk

    A man is standing looking at a greyish black plume coming out of a coal plant. A woman’s voice says:
    “Those dirty plumes. You can try soaking them out, you can try scrubbing them out, and still come out with Carbon Around the Planet. (high little voices singing, Carbon Around the Planet, Carbon Around the Planet! ) Now try Wind. Wind outperforms all the dirty coal products because it can go right in and start producing power before you even start to wash the dirty coal. Wind makes permanent coal plants really obsolete. You won’t hear “Carbon Around the Planet” with Wind. ”

    sinks in and starts to clean before you start to wash

  27. Joe B. says:

    EVERYONE — THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT POSTS FOR US ALL TO TAKE TO HEART! It’s “Dirty Coal” from now on … Verbal habits matter! Joe’s points go for every aspect of our advocacy, not just dirty coal!

  28. Tom Raftery says:

    Hey Joe,

    thanks for the response and as Joe B. says above, this is a hugely important post, thanks for highlighting the issue.

    I understand you are, preaching to the converted here, to a large extent, will be re-blogging this with a link to here on GreenMonk, thanks again.

  29. Jeff says:

    Shelley: “That reminds me of Sarah Palin during the campaign — in one of her stump speeches she actually called natural gas “clean and green”. I probably remember that because 1) it pissed me off due to its incredibly dishonesty and 2) it rhymed.”

    Speaking of incredible dishonesty, wasn’t it Nancy Pelosi who said during the campaign that she wanted to use more natural gas so we could stop depending on fossil fuels?

  30. llewelly says:

    Choking coal.

  31. Unfortunately, the website is even more of a disaster than the ad!

    If America’s coal power plants capture and store their CO2 pollution,
    they will no longer be contributing to the climate crisis
    and could form a crucial part of a clean electricity generation mix.”

    MESSAGE: Coal can be “part of the climate solution”, and is “crucial”!

    Integrated capture and storage for coal power needs to be commercialized so it is available for all coal power plants. …
    To be part of the future energy mix, … Greater investment …
    could speed the availability of electricity from coal power
    that doesn’t release its carbon pollution to the atmosphere.”

    We “need” taxpayer subsidies to “speed the availability” of *Coal* CCS!

    (CCS) is the technical term for preventing global warming pollution from
    coal power plants. Technology assessments indicate CCS can prevent 80% to nearly 100% of a coal power plant’s CO2 from entering the atmosphere.”

    2 MESSAGES: CCS is a great *Technological Fix*! (It just needs a little
    subsidy from taxpayers.) But CCS *only* works with coal!
    CCS is *only* a tool to make coal carbon-neutral.
    CCS *cannot* be used on biofuel power plants to actually *reduce* carbon in the atmosphere.


    (1.) Gore & Co. bent over backwards to be accurate on the *potential*
    of Coal+CCS to be carbon-neutral. But in so doing, their website totally
    trashes (by omission) the potential of Biofuel+CCS to be
    *carbon-negative* —
    i.e, to *genuinely* be “part of the solution to the climate crisis”.

    (2.) Gore & Co’s conceptual contortions also trashed any notion of *TIME RISK* — the Opportunity Cost of Delay. I.e, what happens to
    irreversible greenhouse forcing, and the size and angle
    (a proxy for techno-economic feasibility) of the required Stabilization Wedges *before* Coal+CCS is deployed commercially (if ever)?

    (3.) Gore fails to mention *INTERNATIONAL* RISKS of coal WMD proliferation.
    By implying that every coal plant can be retrofitted with CCS (i.e, IGCC
    is not needed), this gives permission for India and China to build coal
    plants, under the guise of a CCS “Research Exemption”. (That loophole
    is big enough to support an entire industry forever — consider the
    “Research Exemption” for Japan’s Whaling industry!)

    (4.) Gore’s website is 100% compatible with massive


    By comparison, the ad is a minor problem. Its message is so ambiguous,
    that it actually “preaches to the choir” on *both* sides of the issue!
    The message-munging is *not* primarily caused by Lakoff’s repetition
    caveat. Rather, the “clean” message reinforcement stems from the *IMAGE* of a clean landscape, and a narrator in CLEAN, WHITE clothing.

    (Alternatives might be “Coal = Climate Killer”, or a Joe Isuzu liar
    character that equates “Clean Coal” with “Dirty Disinformation”.)

    The question is, what forced the enviros’ to blow $millions on such
    a hasty, ill-conceived campaign rollout? The answer, I fear,
    is what’s happening in behind-the-scenes Congressional drafting
    of Obama’s “Clean Energy” stimulus bill.

  32. Ronald says:

    All you guys watch to much TV. Well, yah, I watch to much TV too, but that’s me, you guys watch to much TV.

  33. David Lewis says:

    The other thing that is recommended for this topic is NOT to read the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage. This would be because this report is a review of what is known about carbon capture, i.e. what the coal industry has dubbed “clean” coal. We wouldn’t want facts to interfere with our analysis now would we? The main thing we want to concern ourselves with is the best way to package up the propaganda we want to shove into everyone else’s mind, right?

    The last thing we’d want to do is examine this proposition Gore is touting, i.e. that carbon capture and storage is nowhere “close to being a reality”, because it is just a “cynical and self interested illusion”.

    Make sure NOT to read the IPCC summary where it states carbon capture and storage is “economically feasible under specific conditions” right now, meaning, in the IPCC’s words “the technology is well understood” and is already being used commercially to a limited extent. Limited, only due to the fact that it requires a “favourable tax regime or a niche market” such as the carbon tax Norway has imposed or the niche market presented by enhanced oil field recovery in North America. Mark Jaccard, interpreting the IPCC data states that a coal fired CCS plant could produce power for 6- 7.5 cents a kw/hr, but we all know “clean coal” is bogus so that must be a lie, after all it is based on careful study of what the IPCC says.

    What is holding carbon capture and storage from being widely implemented to keep 90% of newly constructed coal fired electricity plant emissions out of the atmosphere right now is the fact that people don’t want to make the industry start building them because people don’t want to pay. We’d rather dump on the technology and promote something more expensive, while doing nothing about the new plant that China puts in every week. We won’t even negotiate with them let alone show them the way forward with their coal by proving out the full scale use of the technology.

    Obama had a plank in his platform to build five full scale CCS coal fired plants, cooperating with industry to do it, let’s see what this technology is good for. Gore’s campaign is just to say, where are all the plants, this technology must be bogus, eh? This isn’t Gore’s finest hour.

  34. Doug350 says:

    This print ad is actually very clear … read the fine print at the bottom …

    as is the interactive Reality Fly By which is seemingly endless …

  35. Linda S says:

    Anne, I think your ‘carbon around the planet’ suggestion nails it. It has a memorable message and delivers it with humor. People are a lot more receptive when they’re laughing! Now if you can get Al Gore’s ear . . .

  36. jennifer b says:

    Another word the public wants to hear in addition to safer, cleaner and healthier is “cheaper”.

    Shellenberger and Nordhaus have it right when they say the mantra should be “clean, cheap energy”

  37. jennifer b says:

    But after reading what you all have to say about S&N, I guess that suggestion won’t go over too well.

    However, will the right wing/corporate marketers/deniers be able to convince the public that committing to renewables and climate legislation will mean higher costs of living?

  38. shakti b says:

    How about:

    “pseudo” clean coal

    “unclean coal” or “uncleanable coal”