The Reality Campaign has terrific new Mad Men, the Coen brothers, but they still don’t have a coherent message

The anti-clean-coal Reality Campaign is a coalition of some very serious groups and smart people. They have the same goal as all climate realists — stopping new dirty coal plants. But I just don’t think they have figured out an effective way to attack clean coal clap trap yet.

I criticized the first mocking ad of the Reality Campaign for many reasons, including a lack of obvious message (see here). I criticized their second mocking ad for many reasons, including a lack of obvious message and their continued use of mockery (see Does the “Reality Campaign” need new Mad Men?).

Now they have a third ad, which again relies on mockery (!), but at least they have gotten the best in the film business at irony to direct it (though not to write it) — the Coen brother (whom I love, see my interpretation of No Country for Old Men as a parable about global warming). Here is the ad:

I’ll share my view and then I’d love to hear yours.

It is certainly the best ad of the bunch, the most entertaining, and dirty smoke certainly beats a smudge on the nose as a symbol of coal. But it still suffers from the basic problems of the second ad:

First, c’mon guys and gals — a third 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 usually 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 ad just keeps repeating the phrase “clean coal” over and over again — which is well known as a questionable messaging strategy (again see see “Memo to Gore: Don’t call coal ‘clean’ seven times in your ad“). 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 as opaque as the first two ads. 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, smoke is indeed a great visual metaphor for much of a coal plant’s pollution — but it has nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. As I’ve said before, these ads have an inherent problem. 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. They chose to show dirty emissions — but they aren’t campaigning against dirty emissions.

[I was on the media conference call rolling out this ad today, so I know that some of the members believe “coal has to clean up its act completely” to be clean. If that is the view of the Coalition, they should say so because it may obviate carbon capture and storage.]

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?

[Again, the people on the media call were in favor of genuine demonstrations of coal with carbon capture and storage, like the cancelled — but likely soon to be restored — Futuregen program. Fine by me, but is that the view of the entire Campaign? After all, CCS doesn’t solve key issues like mountaintop removal and all the pollution before the coal gets to the power plant.]

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 once again 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?

Based on the media call, it appears that the over-arching policy goal is very strong action to restrict greenhouse gas emissions, stop new coal plants (or at least once the don’t capture and store the vast majority of their carbon), and ultimately slash the emissions from existing coal plant, which may require shutting them down if clean coal turns out to be too costly or impractical (see “Is coal with carbon capture and storage a core climate solution?“).

That’s a great goal. What does the ad have to do with advancing it?

Running ads is very expensive. Isn’t there a better use of this money?

10 Responses to The Reality Campaign has terrific new Mad Men, the Coen brothers, but they still don’t have a coherent message

  1. PaulK says:

    Isn’t there a better use of this money?

    Considering the clean coal crowd has the President in its ads, yes. The money would be much better spent on actual deployment of alternative energy resources. Participate in the solution.

  2. Pat says:

    Joe, I disagree with your point that “‘Clean coal’ doesn’t have a brand precisely because it doesn’t exist.”

    That is precisely the coal industry’s goal: Namely to create a generic enough brand so that policy makers can avoid making the tough decisions on climate and energy.

    As long as the amorphous promise of clean coal is right around the corner, we don’t need to take bold action today.

    I think the point of this campaign is to take away that brand – to take away that easy rhetorical pivot, if you will – and force an honest conversation on the realities of coal. In this case, they’re trying to use humor to do it.

    To your point about their ultimate policy goal: Another way to think of this is not as the entirety of the climate / coal effort, but rather one discrete but important piece. Take away their ability to use the phrase and lots of other people can come in an fill the breach on policy and solutions.

    I’ll leave it the ad experts to decide if the vehicle they’re using is the most effective – I think it’s funny myself and as a rule think humor his a better way to convince people than fear or finger wagging.

    Maybe one measure of success would be to do a news search and see how many stories have been written about coal’s relative dirtiness since this ad campaign started as compared to before?

  3. EricG says:

    Also, the punch line is delivered in writing at the end. The font is tiny and difficult to read. What’s that about?

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    I’d love to see a miner, like Mike Trumka of UMWA, give this speech, with appropriate backdrops.

    “Coal is beautiful – some would even say miraculous. Nature spent millions of years putting it in the ground — you can see fossils in just about any lump — and for hundreds of years coal miners have risked their lives to provide it for making steel and generating electricity. And we have lived with the costs — mine accidents, pollution of all kinds, and now, global warming.

    “So now this old miner says it’s time to leave some coal in the ground. Efficiency saves money and pollution, and renewable power like wind and solar are within reach. And coal miners are ready to work the clean energy industries of today.

    “Coal is wonderful. It has served us well. Now let’s leave it in the ground.”

  5. DavidONE says:

    First, wonderful to know that the Coen Bros are realists. If they’d been otherwise, half a dozen of my favourite films would have become unwatchable.

    As for the ad, meh it’s OK – but I thought the same as Joe as I watched it – the black clouds of soot are not the issue. It’s the invisible, odourless CO2.

    Let the Coen Brothers do it start to finish next time.

  6. I see Joe’s point about not repeating the “clean coal” message but I also agree with Pat that there is a need to pull the rug from under the coal industry’s attempt to re-brand their product as clean. The term “clean coal” is in widespread usage, so there is a need to at least refer to it in rebutting the myth it is perpetuating.

    The term “clean coal” is a great message from an advertising perspective: it’s short, catchy and conveys a simple message that everyday people will understand the gist of. Of course it glosses over reality – but that is the whole point from the coal industry’s perspective.

    One point in favour of the add – there is a lot of irony in it, which reflects one of your recent posts on the use of rhetoric Joe.

    Personally, I like the linkage: “clean coal and clean cigarettes don’t exist”. It links the term “clean coal” directly to something that people know is a myth and which people can associate with the history of deception by the tobacco industry.

  7. John Hollenberg says:

    I don’t find the ad very impressive or convincing. Hopefully they will do better in the future. In my opinion, repeating the phrase “clean coal” just makes people think there is, or might be, such a thing. That’s probably all they will remember in a couple of months.

  8. Jay Alt says:

    I like it, it’s an improvement. The criticisms are valid but overly analytical. One ad need not do everything. I hope it help people question the premise of clean coal, surveys could determine if that is true. I’m no advertising guru but campaigns are done in stages. This one seems effective and it lays groundwork for future efforts.

  9. If some people are persuaded to foreclose all investigation of ways we might make coal clean, on the grounds that mitigating CO2, fly ash, and water pollution from coal operations is completely impossible on principle, then I think the ad does more harm than good. Mocking is only effective when you have some truth to contradict the imposture that is mocked. And a little mocking goes a long way. This ad brings heat, but no light.

    Many people are under the impression that if we just abandon coal completely, and go to wind and solar instead, everything will be fine. Of course, that is not even close to being true. Like it or not, in the US and especially in India and China, coal is indispensable for baseload power. That’s what keeps the lights on, and makes electric cars possible.

    There is no positive alternative offered by the ad. Wind and solar presently are very small contributors to the world’s energy needs. They are intermittent and their storage problems have not been solved. Biofuels, etc. may make a small contribution, but they cannot possibly substitute for coal any time before 2050.

    Cleaning up coal, somehow, is the only realistic solution, but what the coal companies have been selling (chemical capture and “sequestration” underground) has not been proved and has no chance of success. So it is time to seek other solutions. What are they? That is the challenge.

  10. YelenaVee says:

    I think this is actually one of their better ads, if indeed, The Reality Campaign is trying to diminish the Clean Coal Brand. (And there definitely is a Clean Coal Brand, or at least the beginnings of one. How many people have asked you “what’s clean coal?”)

    One of the most basic tenets of advertising is to keep the message as clear and simple as possible, to enable it to be easily absorbed from out from the mass of media bombardment..and this ad does exactly that. The message I received was that “clean coal is a lie”. If, in fact, that was the intended aim, this particular ad works. If not, then, you there may be a problem. (I’m a visual communicator from Australia)

    You have one ad campaign address one concept at a time. The more you complicate a message, the less chance it has to work. I think that may be the strategy here. Let’s hope it has the intended effect. At the very least, it helps to muddy the waters for the obstructionist’s message.