Schneider says they used "Sixteen Tons" because it "instantly feels like a coal-mining song." He also argues that "you can picture coal miners singing it without any negative feelings." I guess. I don't think Merle Travis meant for it to sound happy.
Admittedly, by 1955, when Tennessee Ernie Ford scored a hit with the cover of "Sixteen Tons" that's used in this ad, the song was more a novelty than a statement. But I would have suggested that GE use Lee Dorsey's "Working in a Coal Mine" instead—it's much more lighthearted, but it still conveys "coal mine" right off the bat.
Of course, there's a proud tradition of using unsuitable songs in ads. There's the Bob Dylan/Bank of Montreal fiasco, and plenty of more recent examples: One Target ad had Devo sing "It's a beautiful world" but ignored the part where they sing "It's not for me." An ad for HP digital photography had The Cure sing "I've been looking so long at these pictures of you that I almost believe that they're real" but left out the depressing coda: "If only I thought of the right words I wouldn't be breaking apart all my pictures of you."
Seems like it's time for a reader contest. Please submit your own favorite examples of incongruous advertising soundtracks. Send them, along with accompanying rants, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Grade: C. And GE gets additional points off for making me use the term "ecomagination." It reminds me of the brilliant Mr. Show sketch about a ponytailed CEO who embraces "imagineering" and "engination" and fosters a corporate culture "where ideas can hang out—and do whatever!"