Spot Highlighting GE’s Shift to Eco-Friendly Is Quite a Catch

Ge_video_image_1 Advertising Age

By
Bob Garfield

Fishermen haul up their nets and discover, amid a pitiful handful of fish, thousands of bottles of water. ‘Ecomagination’ Is it a Greenpeace ad decrying ocean dumping? No, the fishermen toss
the fish right back over the side. They’re trolling for water! It’s a
GE ad about new technology for desalination. "Ecomagination at work"

Clever twist. Inspiring technology. Kind of makes you admire … gulp … GE?! The company that dumped PCBs in the Hudson?

See, the thing about advertising is, it works.

Or, anyway, it can work — if the audience is actually there, and if
the practitioners know what they’re about. By its mere presence, of
course, advertising works at a basic level: conferring awareness,
substance and credibility to a brand. In the rarest of cases, it can
also represent the very essence of the brand, transcending the goods
themselves: Nike and Marlboro, for instance.

Power to persuade
But advertising has one more remarkable
quality, one seldom asked of it these days, at least in broadcast form:
the power to persuade. To change minds, and feelings, on a mass scale.

Propaganda, in other words.

Needless to say, this power can be deployed for good or evil.
Consider anti-tobacco advertising, which has helped reduce consumption
and propelled changes in social and governmental norms. Then think
about cigarette advertising itself, which for decades positioned the
products as beneficial and then — in the face of scientific evidence
to the contrary — benign.

The problem is figuring out when persuasion is serving truth
and when it is serving lies. Or both. In advertising, that problem is
never more evident than in discussion of the environment.

Confusing the public
Sometimes it’s easy, such as when the
sleazebags at the Competitive Enterprise Institute tried to confuse the
public about greenhouse gasses by focusing on the importance of the
life cycle of carbon dioxide — an irrelevancy to the question of
climate change. "Carbon dioxide," said the ads that ran last summer.
"They call it pollution. We call it life." What scum.

But what about when Toyota boasts about its Prius hybrid? Are
we supposed to credit the effort to find a cleaner car, or think about
the Land Cruiser, which is an environmental abomination? And consider
BP, which five years ago adopted a new green and yellow logo shaped
like a blooming flower. It’s a cynical, dishonest and unforgivably
manipulative little trick. Yet even we here at AdReview have to force
ourselves, when we pass its gas stations, to remember that BP isn’t
really some sort of kinder, gentler eco-friendly oil company.

This brings us to GE. Two years ago, it unveiled its
Ecomagination campaign, showcasing the various steps it was taking not
only to safeguard the environment but to make boatloads of money
safeguarding the environment. The ads from BBDO Worldwide, New York,
were clever and beautifully produced (all GE ads from BBDO are
beautifully produced), but they raised the question: Is this for real,
or just the latest greenwashing of a serial polluter? Are they
enlightening us or tricking us?

Propaganda
Well, nobody is pure, and propaganda is never the
same as truth. But this campaign legitimately reflects the corporate
vision to develop clean(er) technologies for industrial customers in
energy, transportation and so on — 45 products (up from 17 at launch)
that will generate $13 billion in 2007 revenue. Seems pretty real to
us.

And so we can feel our admiration without shame, having been
persuaded that a gigantic, soulless corporation can — if only through
the miracle of institutionalized greed — work for the greater good.
This is not something we’d have thought about if we hadn’t seen a few
TV commercials. See, the thing about advertising is, it works.

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