Last week, I jumped on a conference call (transcript here) put together around the launch of a satirical clean coal television directed by the Coen Brothers. Over at Treehugger, I've got our Top 10 Countdown of the media coverage resulting from the spot's premiere. Coming in at number four was call attendee Joseph Romm of Climate Progress. What follows is my extended commentary.
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.
The misstep here is thinking that "Clean Coal" isn't a well-established brand. The public relations campaign from The American Coalition for Clean Coal Technology (ACCCE) has been far and reaching playing a central and almost dominant role (second only to off-shore drilling) in the energy debate during the 2008 presidential election. Millions of Americans, having had nary a thought of coal nor having had any reason to make mention of coal, have been touched to link the word "coal" with the word "clean." Beyond perhaps the cliche concerning a lump of fossil fuel in your Christmas stocking (ACCCE this past x-mas out out a video of coal singing Frosty The Coalman -- I rest my case), or teaching kiddies the iconic image of the coal-fired choo-choo steaming down the tracks, coal has been out of site and out of mind for some time now. As light now begins to shine into that darkness, coal emerges reborn along with a trade-association assist re-branded as "clean coal." For all intents and purposes, the dominant perception even before recent coal industry PR efforts I would argue is one of coal as clean simply because the wealthier among no longer need live anywhere near a coal-fired power plant.
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 "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.
Great stuff from Climate Progress on the basics of messaging that generally hold true, however, the twin tactics of satire and re-appropriation aim to blow such critique out of the water. When satire is effective, it goes guns drawn at all that is decadent and corrupt as to make the object of its disaffections so riduncluous as to no longer be able to be taken seriously -- check to the gut for you, Nightly News, after years of coasting along comes Stewart-and-Colbert-wielding-technology (as well as sites like Think Progress) to put you in your place and to keep you on your toes. Re-appropriation of those sticks-and-stones lets niggers become niggas, dykes become proud women who love other women, or damn hippy treehuggers to become consumers of TreeHugger. So to use and repeat the term "clean coal" is an attempt to wrest it from the hands of others; to take the wind out of its sails or to claim it. Now, I find Romm's repeated bandying of the term "mocking" to describe The Reality Campaign's ads a wee curmudgeonly as well as revealing his misunderstanding of the playing field. The boob-tube ain't the ancient Athenian Agora nor is this particular marketing exercise one suited to a critique of rhetoric which seeks to persuade by means of logic and reasoning. Hah! Here we're on the turf of emotions, and by this I do not mean in the realm of understanding potential psychological responses. We're not "repeating claims" here, we're mud-wrestling.
The real reason the ads are not as effective as they might be: they aren't meant to be funny, but rather to be taken very seriously. Perhaps that's why Romm sees them as mocking rather than satirical. And I don't say the ads are not funny as my personal assessment. I say this because the ads themselves are constructed to be SCARY. They aim to instill fear of what might happen if someone bad were allowed to get away with something, well, reeeeeeeally bad. Which nobody likes because then you're saying that I'm a fool. Don't point out in 2004 the scary mess Bush has made, I voted for him in 2000, I wasn't a fool then and I'm not a fool now. The Reality Campaign ads don't seek to perform the role of the perpetual jester, nipping at the heels of powerful kings keeping truth and hope alive, but instead want us to crap our pants with that humming sound effect edited in beneath the end-card coordinated to send a chill down our spine. And in the mistaken choice to fear monger, the miss-step of placing one foot back into the world of rhetoric, of reasoning, of plea-making -- the ads fall short. John Stewart never never never turns serious. We're he to do so would be tantamount to unraveling the hard-won satirical credibility of each and every hair shirt he has so lovingly crafted for legions of schlimazels to wear. He engineers the laugh not to inform, but to destroy. To make it impossible even for a moment to turn one's inner compass from the truth and to swallow what has been discredited as absurd.
On the conference call, Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles refers to as "absurd" the idea of building new coal-fired plants. As they say in the motion-image crafts: don't say it, show it. Rhetoric is saying. Satire is showing. So when Rohm suggests The Reality Campaign needs hire new Mad Men, the less-than-scrupulous whom by definition pedal falsehoods, he would do better to say that the media effort is in need of skilled satirists, whom by their nature traffic in the quest for truth. Furthermore, Romm bemoans (and I don't disagree with him) the lack of a positive message. I concur that you score more flies with honey and that going into the heat of a PR wrestling wring with no "counter brand" to knock the competitor from its square isn't necessarily the best game plan. It is my belief, however, that the Reality Campaign & Co see themselves selling a product known as "reality," which in our post-Bush-present-Bernie Madoff world seems to be a hot commodity. That said, The Reality Campaign's logo of a dead canary certainly fails the "turn-that-smile upside down" test (although I do find the 2D flat art elegant and aesthetically pleasing). Were the ad agency behind the spots and campaign imaging (which is truly where all this fumbling derives) to fully commit to a satirical approach, they would most likely find themselves executing something resembling much of what Rohm calls for, albeit not as a result of a belabored analysis about which marketing techniques work best on consumers.
In the wake of take-no-prisoners satire, we would see both a canary pass out from a build-up of dangerous gases in the metaphorical mine of Planet Earth, as well as our bird of legend springing back to life at animation's close representing and celebrating lives saved as a consequence of sacrifice. A modest phoenix reminding us not only does innocence die, it engenders song. Don't forget the songs of coal mine canaries were actual and palpable. Perhaps both for themselves as well as the miners. Singing until their time had come to give way to the carbon monoxide. Such a grace note capping the campaign's animation assets and spots could accomplish as much as hearing that precious song miles into Earth's crust. In fragility, there is strength. The strength to press forward and live. Hope. Sound familiar? I made this same critique and distinction between the Step It Up and the 350 campaigns; the former envisions horrific sea-level rise while the later urges us to will into being a bright, clean future. During the 2008 Olympics, you think Michael Phelps spent much time or energy concentrating on the consequences of potential failure?
With our re-envisioned tweety-bird conclusion to the Reality ad creatives in mind, let us remember the potential satire holds as a useful tool rather than say fear mongering or just plain comedy and amusement on the other end of the spectrum. While comedy has as its #1 rule No One Gets Hurt (i.e. the eternal return of Willy Coyote), satire's prime directive is Hurt Until Everyone Gets a Laugh -- including the object of ridicule. And by means of that laugh in which ALL JOIN can be found the loftiest outcome for which we might hope. Perhaps with a sense of grandiosity, we aim our needling, direct our sharp-witted efforts towards those with whom we find ourselves in disagreement in the hope they will join us in a better place, moving from wicked laugh to peaceful integrated smile upon our face.