The 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:

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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 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 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.

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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, 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.