GE's Sexy 'Eco-Imagination'

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Slate contributor Seth Stevenson reviews a new series of commercials from General Electric. The company's "eco-imagination" campaign takes off with a spot featuring sexy supermodels working in a coal mine.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Now for our regular look at the business of advertising, Seth Stevenson is the ad critic for our partners at the online magazine Slate. In that role, people like to let Seth know when they've seen an ad they either love or hate. There's one new ad, Seth says, that is drawing an unusual amount of attention.

SETH STEVENSON reporting:

This spot is part of the new eco-imagination campaign from General Electric. For the last several weeks. GE's public face 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. Cut to--Where else?--a coal mine.

(Soundbite of GE Energy commercial)

STEVENSON: The scene in GE's new spot is 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.

(Soundbite of GE Energy commercial)

Mr. "TENNESSEE" ERNIE FORD: (Singing) You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.

STEVENSON: So what's the punch line here? Why are gorgeous young models mining coal? The announcer clues us in.

(Soundbite of GE Energy commercial)

Unidentified Man: Now, thanks to emissions-reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day.

STEVENSON: Aha. Coal mining is beautiful. And it's hard to complain when a mondo global corp takes any steps to lessen its environmental impact. Of course, you may ask: Is burning more coal a good idea? I'm not really qualified to assess this, but here's what I can say with great confidence. This ad is awful. 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 getting black lung and getting killed when mines collapse. It won't be sexy supermodels. By the way, you won't be shocked to learn that the models did their strutting in a replica coal mine built on a sound stage.

The ad guy in charge here told me 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 to portray the job as a stylish party. 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 coal miner father. Here's another line from the "Tennessee" Ernie Ford version used in the ad.

(Soundbite of "Sixteen Tons")

Mr. FORD: (Singing) St. Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store.'

STEVENSON: 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. Dylan did that with Bank of Montreal. Of course, there's a proud tradition of using unsuitable songs in ads. One Target ad had Devo sing, `It's a beautiful world,' but ignored the part where they sing, `It's not for me.'

Seems like it's time for a contest. Please submit your own favorite examples of incongruous advertising soundtracks. Send them today, along with accompanying rants, to adreportcard@slate.com. That's adreportcard@slate.com.

As for the GE spot, I give it a C. And GE gets additional points off for making me use the term eco-imagination.

CHADWICK: Seth Stevenson writes the Ad Report Card column for our partners at the online magazine Slate. Don't forget to send in your entries.

(Soundbite of instrumental portion of "The Times They Are A-Changin'")

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News and slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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