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?
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.
Review: 3.5 stars
Agency: BBDO Worldwide
Location: New York