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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