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:
- What piece of misinformation do you think the public has that will negatively affect public policy?
- How do your ads attack or debunk that piece of misinformation usefully for the average listener/viewer?
- 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?