Sex sells. But can sex sell coal?

Advertising deconstructed.
May 31 2005 6:15 AM

Coal Miners Hotter

Sex sells. But can GE use sex to sell coal?

GE's metaphorical miners
GE's metaphorical miners

The Spot: We're in a coal mine, dank and dark. But wait—what's with these coal miners? They're sexy! Toned bods and tank tops. Dudes with cinder-block pecs. Ladies with come-hither stares. One of these chicks is wielding what looks to be a pneumatic jackhammer. As the models preen with their pickaxes and helmet lamps, an old mining folk song plays: "You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt." (Click here and scroll down to watch the ad.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This spot is part of the new "ecomagination" campaign from General Electric. For the last several weeks, through various channels (including a press conference, an op-ed in the Washington Post,and this suite of television commercials), GE has been getting all enviro on us. The company pledges to ramp up its research into eco-friendly technology, and to curb its own emission of greenhouse gases.

It's hard to complain when a mondo globo-corp takes any steps to lessen its environmental impact, and GE did enlist the World Resources Institute in cooking up this whole shebang. This particular TV spot (titled "Model Miners") touts GE's cleaner-coal technology and suggests we use our ample coal reserves to solve the nation's energy problems. As the announcer intones: "Harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."

You may ask: Is burning more coal a good idea? Perhaps. I'm not really qualified to assess this. I read up on "clean coal" for a couple of hours, but all I know for certain is that (surprise) there are arguments on both sides. Here's what I can say with great confidence: This ad blows.

Even if coal processing gets cleaner, that coal will still need to be mined. And unless I'm mistaken, there will be actual coal miners doing that. Now: Guess who still gets black lung? Guess who still gets killed when mines collapse? It isn't sexy supermodels.

You won't be shocked to learn that the models appearing in this ad never actually entered any mines. That would be dirty, unpleasant, and dangerous. Instead, according to the ad agency, a replica coal mine was built on a soundstage. That way the models could strut in comfort.

The ad guy in charge (Executive Creative Director Don Schneider, of BBDO) thinks I'm being way too literal. The models, he says, are a "metaphor." The idea obviously being that with GE's new process, coal starts to look—as an energy alternative—much more attractive.

But it strikes me as disingenuous to call for a massive resurgence in coal mining and then portray the job as a stylish sex party. Richard Avedon managed to find beauty in the faces of actual miners, not supermodel stand-ins.

Several of my readers were even more galled by the ad's use of "Sixteen Tons"—a folk song about the miserable futility of mining and the evils of controlling corporations. Merle Travis wrote the song in 1946, drawing on the experiences of his father, a coal miner from Kentucky. More sample lyrics: "St. Peter don't you call me 'cuz I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store."

Not a positive take on the mining experience. So what's it doing here, in a piece of pro-coal propaganda? The only thing comparably weird would be to use Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changin'" in an ad for, say, a giant, corporate bank. Oh, wait—never mind.

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 adreportcard@slate.com.

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!"

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