Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?

don.jpgThe anti-clean-coal Reality Campaign is a coalition of some very serious groups and smart people. They have the same goal that all CSAs (climate science advocates) do, namely to stop building new dirty coal plants (and presumably to start shutting down existing ones). But I just don’t think they have figured out an effective way to attack clean coal clap trap yet.

I criticized the first ad of the Reality Campaign (see “Memo to Gore: Don’t call coal ‘clean’ seven times in your ad“). I think that costly TV ad is actually counterproductive, and probably leaves in the memory of most casual viewers (i.e. the target audience) either a neutral or positive view of “clean coal.” I can’t believe Frank Luntz or the fictional Don Draper — or any set of leading PR people the Campaign might get pro bono — would ever sign off on such an ad.

Now they have a new uncompelling “Smudge” ad, which again is simply too clever by half. Judge for yourself:

At least they only repeat “clean” twice, and at least this appears to be a web only ad that won’t cost them much money. I’m interested in your impressions. I see a lot wrong with this ad.

First, c’mon guys and gals — a second mocking ad? There must be some reason why mocking ads are relatively rare on TV. And the few you do see — I’m a Mac, I’m a PC, come to mind — are usualy comparison ads with brands, like Microsoft/PC, that are well, well established in people’s mind. “Clean coal” doesn’t have a brand precisely because it doesn’t exist. I don’t see how mocking is a good approach let alone the primary one.

Second, relatedly, again the lingering visual image at the end is a sentence with the phrase “clean coal.” If you surveyed viewers of this ad a month from now, again, I would imagine most would have either a neutral or positive view of “clean coal” — assuming they have any clue what it is.

Third, the message of this ad is even more opaque than the TV ad. Try watching the ad as if you don’t follow the issues closely, as if you don’t really know what “clean coal” is. What the heck would you come away with?

Fourth, a smudge on the nose? That’s the visual metaphor you want to leave people with? That’s the dirtiness people should worry about? Modern coal production is one the greatest blights on this country, and coal plants spew out dirty stuff — and the old, unregulated, grandfathered coal plants spew out really huge amounts of dirty stuff. The smudge doesn’t mock the coal industry as being somehow much dirtier than they are pretending to be — everybody knows a lump of coal is physically dirty.

Fifth, this leads to an inherent problem for these ads. The only pollution that the Reality Campaign opposes is global warming pollution — at least that’s the only environmental problem I see mentioned on their “About” page. But carbon dioxide isn’t dirty. And if the Campaign isn’t going to run ads of climate impacts, then I’m just not certain what “dirtiness” metaphor they can run with. They could show mountaintop removal — but they aren’t campaigning against mountaintop removal. They could show dirty emissions — but they aren’t campaigning against dirty emissions.

I called them the “anti-clean-coal Reality Campaign” but I can’t tell whether they are against clean coal or just against the coal industry claiming there is clean coal when there isn’t. Some of the coalition members support an aggressive effort to develop carbon capture and storage (which I wouldn’t call clean coal, but many do), while others strongly oppose such an effort. These too-clever ads may be an attempt to finesse that huge, and I would argue unbridgeable, difference.

If the point of the ad campaign is to convince people that clean coal doesn’t exist, then a logical conclusion — unless they run an ad saying otherwise — is that we should work hard to develop clean coal. Is that a message the Campaign members endorse?

In a strange way, the ads may actually be counterproductive from a climate perspective. As long as people think there is clean coal, maybe they would be more supportive of carbon regulations. Who knows? I personally prefer a different sort of message (see “Like Detroit, the coal industry chooses (assisted) suicide“), but then I have a much different audience than these ads.

Bottom Line: I just don’t think these ads work. I would ask the Reality Campaign to think hard about three questions:

  1. What piece of misinformation do you think the public has that will negatively affect public policy?
  2. How do your ads attack or debunk that piece of misinformation usefully for the average listener/viewer?
  3. What public policy goal are you ultimately trying to push?

If someone from the Campaign can answer those questions, I’d be glad to publish them and reevaluate my criticisms in that light.

26 Responses to Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?

  1. Rick C says:


    exactly right! The visable smudginess is not the major problem with coal. The problem is how to communicate that the major problem with CO2 emissions is pricisely CO2 emissions.

    Here’s a good short. It’s not a 30 second ad but if it could be condensed into an ad it would be powerful.

  2. Modesty says:

    Yeah. I’m not so sure about the whole smudge metaphor. But if we’re going with coal is dirty (in so many different ways), then for a bit more impact, maybe this kind of sludge flood could swamp the guy’s office, at the end of the video instead:

    From the video, local resident: “I don’t know what all this is gonna kill…but it’s definitely killing the fish….I don’t know that this can be cleaned up.”

    See also:

  3. hapa says:

    it’s weak. compared to the california department of health’s anti-smoking ads, it’s muddled, listless, and inappropriately kind to a group of people in the business of causing the rest of humanity lasting harm. if this ad were a lawyer, it would be the last lawyer i’d call to argue our next case.

  4. Agreed this might possibly promote coal – but mostly this is entertainment sarcasm encouraging disengagement from the issue.

    Similar to the tobacco industries early anti smoking ads – that were mostly parent figures lecturing rebellious teenagers. Perfect pro smoking ads. But too blatant.

    But any new agit-prop is helping craft new perceptions

  5. ken levenson says:

    right-on. way too “inside baseball” to be effective.
    (it’s like they’re entertaining themselves…weird.)

  6. BC says:

    I agree that the whole campaign may be mistargeted, allowing the clean coal issue to become the red herring center of debate that it doesn’t need to be. How about a campaign getting a push going for strong carbon regulation as a priority in the next year (maybe a la the AARP health care ads)? This is the core issue. Carbon capture and storage may be a key bargaining chip for certain states to come on board to a bill, so making it the issue that could make or kill a bill may be counterproductive. This isn’t the central issue. Let’s get a cost of carbon internalized in the economy, and quit obsessing over certain technologies. We’ll probably need ’em all.

  7. University of Washington professor William Calvin has an excellent slide deck/pdf on Climate Psychology. dated just a few months ago.

  8. Megan Michaels says:

    I happen to like both ads and see them as very effective. My husband’s attention was caught and normally he tunes out ads and such. He was impressed with both ads as am I.

    [JR: Fair enough. I’d be interested to know what he now thinks as opposed to before. You, too.]

  9. Russ says:

    “smudge on the nose” to represent coal’s filthiness…That’s like those “this is your brain on drugs” ads showing very tasty-looking fried eggs. I don’t think it really gets the message across.

    A smudge on the nose is like some silly cutesy gag in a sitcom.

    (On the other hand, I read somewhere not long ago that the really graphic ads showing the real ravages of smoking also don’t work. That they’re just too disgusting. So what does that mean – that we’re like Goldilocks seeking something in between?)

  10. guido says:

    Whow, Joe!

    Chill, it’s just humor and i think it’s funny and compelling. If anything it grabs attention in an unusual way.

    Just think of it as another tactic to help us advance that cause.

  11. EricG says:


    Rather than assume these guys don’t know what they are doing, why don’t you ask them what kind of audience testing they did? Maybe they have good reason to believe these ads are effective.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    The January/February issue of Sierra has a few pages of sharp photos about coal use. I thought it clever.

  13. walle says:

    Hi Joe,

    Unfortunately, I think the ad reflects “irrational exuberance” in the green community. Everyone is so pumped by PEBO and the “Dream Team” (Waxman, Boxer, Pelosi, Browner, Holder, Chu, Sutley, & Jackson) they think that this is going to be a slam dunk – that coal is going to roll over.

    Well, it’s not. Especially when many American’s still believe that offshore drilling is a national priority. Probably time to rethink the ad strategy.

  14. Joe says:

    Not surprisingly, after my first post I was contacted by them. Can’t say I heard anything that lead me to believe they have a specific marketing or messaging strategy.

    If you read the post on the TV ad, then you know that the ad is questionable from the perspective of 2500-year-old rhetoric and recent psychological research.

    Guido — One humorous ad can be amusing, but two is not. And again, even if you take the ad for what it is, what the heck is the message?

  15. hapa says:

    now i think it’s funny but i also liked addams family values.

  16. dean says:

    While I think that many of your criticisms are valid, I think you overstate the case. As somebody strongly committed to the same issue, it’s only a few months ago that I learned how much of a myth clean coal is. But I had heard of clean coal for years. I just assumed that there probably were a few of them – somewhere. I think that the ads should mention that there isn’t a single production-scale clean coal plant in the whole world as additional proof. Nonetheless, given how much momentum the coal folks have on this, I doubt these commercials are counter-productive, even if they could be better.

    And i see that coal is responding with a campaign speech by Obama. So maybe we need to get rid of the electoral college. Without it, coal-mining states wouldn’t be swing states and have so much influence on campaigns.

  17. I know that they are not serious because they have not said: “Coal contains uranium, thorium, arsenic, lead,……” What are they really trying to do?

  18. Coal is mostly carbon, but the complete list of impurities in coal includes almost every element in the periodic table. The major impurities are, depending on where you found it are: URANIUM, ARSENIC, LEAD, MERCURY, Antimony, Cobalt, Nickel, Copper, Selenium, Barium, Fluorine, Silver, Beryllium, Iron, Sulfur, Boron, Titanium, Cadmium, Magnesium, Calcium, Manganese, Vanadium, Chlorine, Aluminum, Chromium, Molybdenum and Zinc. Coal smoke and cinders are commercially viable ORE for the above elements. Chinese industrial grade coal contains much more arsenic than American coal. Chinese industrial grade coal is sometimes stolen by peasants for cooking. The result is that the whole family dies of arsenic poisoning. Coal varies a lot. You have to analyze it not only mine by mine but even lump by lump. Coal is a rock. It comes out of the ground. What would you expect of a rock? Coal also contains organics. When they dump overburden, it inevitably contains “stony coal,” by which I mean a combination of ordinary rock and coal.
    by Alex Gabbard
    Oak Ridge National Laboratory
    Oak Ridge, TN
    Selections from the 19th Annual Conference
    March 14,15,16, 1996
    Nashville, Tennessee

    Published by the
    Edited by Jack D. Arters, Ed.D.
    Conference Director
    The truth is, all natural rocks contain most natural elements. Coal is a rock.
    The average concentration of uranium in coal is 1 or 2 parts per million. Illinois
    coal contains up to 103 parts per million uranium. A 1000 million watt coal
    fired power plant burns 4 million tons of coal each year. If you multiply 4
    million tons by 1 part per million, you get 4 tons of uranium. Most of that is
    U238. About .7% is U235. 4 tons = 8000 pounds. 8000 pounds times .7% =
    56 pounds of U235. An average 1000 million watt coal fired power plant puts
    out 56 to 112 pounds of U235 every year. There are only 2 places the uranium
    can go: Up the stack or into the cinders.

    “Modern electrostatic precipitator plants are capable of operating at greater than 99.5% collection efficiency but can still release 35 lb/year of uranium as just one component in almost 3 million tons of ash vented through stacks. In addition to this radiological species, all the radon in coal is released during combustion. An estimate for average Rn-222 release is about 2 Curies/year for each 1000 MWe coal fired facility15.”

    Since a reactor full fuel load is around 11 tons of 2% U235 and 98% U238, and one load lasts about 10 years, and what one coal fired power plant puts into the air and cinders fully fuels a nuclear power plant.
    Compare 4 Million tons per year with 1.1 tons per year. 1.1 divided by 4 Million = 2.75 E -7 = .000000275 =.0000275%. Remember that only 2% of that is U235. The nuclear power plant needs ~44 pounds of U235 per year. The coal fired power plant burns coal by the trainload. The nuclear power plant consumes U235 in such small quantities yearly that you could carry that much weight in a briefcase. The full fuel load and the years between fueling varies from reactor to reactor, but one truck can carry the weight of a full nuclear fuel load.See also:

  19. Bryan Davis says:

    In regards to whether satire is effective advertising, I highly recommend this video:

    From my perspective it’s one of the funniest, and most effective commercials I’ve ever seen against “clean coal.” However, this ad is certainly cynical, and carries the flavor of the middle of the Bush years, when it was hard to hope for anything.

    In general, I think that such advertising is primarily effective for online communities who read a lot more, but not television. In general, they are only good bits for preaching to choir.

  20. DavidONE says:

    I asked for his take on this. His response:

    > “The way I’d sell the story is by pointing out the lie, the hoodwink, the scam. It’s the Bernie Madoff of energy.”

    That works for me. I don’t think this topic is the place for satire or cutesy humour. Counter adverts need to focus on the fact that the energy industry is lying – say that plain and clear to people and they’ll remember that message next time the lie is told.

  21. Persia says:

    Here from Matt Y. I’m totally in agreement, the ads are crap.

    I think that the ads should mention that there isn’t a single production-scale clean coal plant in the whole world as additional proof.

    And see, there’s the flaw in these ads– if they really wanted to take on clean coal, why not try, say, facts? They could’ve made a simple, point-driven, fact-based ad for probably a fraction of what this posturing drivel cost. Example:

    Text and/or narration: We’ve heard a lot about ‘clean coal.’

    ::montage of a zillion people, including McCain and Obama, talking about ‘clean coal.’::

    Back to text/narration: But did you know there’s not a single production-scale clean coal plant in the world? That’s right. Not one. Industry experts say that the technology needed to make coal clean is probably ten to fifteen years away. We need technology that can help us now, to make our rivers and streams cleaner and stop global warming. And right now…that’s not clean coal.

    …you get the idea anyway!

  22. Greg says:

    I think we need to consider this in context. First, isn’t it possible these ads are a part of a bigger chess match, so to speak? Perhaps eliminating anticipated use of the “clean coal” concept by the energy industry, not debunking something already out there?

    That said, the question remains: What public policy goal are you ultimately trying to push?

  23. Notice the current Quit Smoking TV ad campaign.. sponsored by Pfizer – selling their quit smoking medicine. Personal testimonies about how difficult it is to quit.

    But their medicine business interest are best served by more people smoking. So when I see closeup images of pleasant faces looking into the camera saying things like “I admit it, I love to smoke”

    Well this may connect Pfizer with prospective clients, but is makes smoking an acceptable habit, and I think emotionally encourages the habit.

    Easily confused humans meet diabolically deceptive influence peddlers. Yikes!

  24. Ronald says:

    OK, the ad is bad.

    You’ve got a video camera and computer and youtube. make yours and do better than the Reality people did.

  25. Pat says:

    ok, late to this convo, but one man’s take on it, for what it’s worth…

    One way to think about these ads might be to understand that first and foremost most people don’t react well to being lectured to and don’t react well to outrage. A more effective approach is to let people come to their own conclusion which I think these ads are trying to accomplish. Here’s my take on Joe’s questions:

    – I assume most people (including many policymakers) don’t really understand climate or electricity and coal’s role in both. Most folks would also like there to be an easy answer to a big problem like climate change. Given this, most people (including policymakers) are particularly susceptible to the clean coal message: we already rely on it, it’s clean and getting cleaner every day. It’s the same “go back to sleep, we’ll take care of it” message that most of the fossil fuel industry has been peddling the past two years.

    – As long as policy makers and can use the myth of clean coal with some credibility it’s easier to avoid making the hard decisions that have to be made in order to solve the climate crisis.

    – As I see it, the goal of these ads are not to do everything (pass legislation, etc), but mainly to help in that first and critical step of making ‘clean coal’ not a credible excuse for inaction. Once it is debranded we can have an honest conversation about the present and likely future costs of relying on dirty coal.

    In terms of the images used, it may not be a literal interpretation of what is or is not clean about coal, but it’s symbolic. Given that most folks don’t really understand the substance of the climate issue, it’s just a way to make the issue more accessible. I suppose they could run a campaign that talks about parts per million and SOX and NOX but I don’t think anyone would really understand.