Garfield's AdReview

By Published on .

Gee, what a perfect week for the Houstatonic River Natural Resource Trustees to receive their draft report on the cleanup of the western Massachusetts' waterway, contaminated over the decades by General Electric's dumping of carcinogenic PCBs. It corresponded perfectly with the unveiling of GE's "Ecomagination" campaign, celebrating the company's heroic contributions to our environment.

OK. You may stop snickering now. We note that delicious irony not to suggest wanton hypocrisy or cynicism by GE and BBDO, New York. We simply wish to observe that technology, industry and progress are a double-edged sword.

Yes, they bring good things to life. But, protected as the planet is by the thinnest of regulatory membranes and the thinner still sheath of corporate responsibility, those modern forces also bring good things to death.

GE has given us light bulbs and MRI scanners and "Friends." It has also polluted rivers such as the Houstatonic and that other one ... what's it called? Oh, yeah.

The Hudson.

That's why we are so intrigued with the new campaign, which-absent historical context-makes a pretty compelling case for the convergence of eco-mindedness and GE know-how.

One newspaper spread shows a robin in its tree-branch nest-except the trunk of the tree is a smokestack. A magazine ad has a smokestack casting a shadow of a leafy tree. Confrontational images both, promoting GE's cleaner coal-burning technology. Other print ads use Audubon-style wildlife etchings with decidedly unnaturalistic elements-such as a jetliner-in the background. Nature and industry in harmony is the idea.

Then there's the TV. One bizarre (albeit admittedly sexy) spot is set in a mine populated by sweaty, coal-smeared fleshpots. The very strained message is about the "beauty" of plentiful coal reserves now eco-friendly thanks to GE's gasification technology. But the musical background is "16 Tons," which is about worker exploitation. How weird is that?

Another spot, a sepia-toned Ken Burns docu-knockoff about transcontinental rail, extols the virtues of GE's clean-burning locomotives. The joke-and it's a good one-is all the 19th-century witnesses of the Golden Spike ceremony are covered in soot. Very clever, and pointed, too. The question is, does history disqualify this advertiser from bragging about environmental anything, on the simple grounds of "How dare you?!"

Nah.

First of all, except for one dubious paragraph on its "Ecomagination" Web site, GE claims no heritage of environmental responsibility. It is speaking mainly of the present, and the future. Secondly, while this has some elements of the typical corporate-image puffery, it also serves as a business-to-business campaign. GE sells jet engines and wind turbines and locomotives; these ads advertise them. Finally, while the campaign aims to manage perception by, let's say, accentuating the positive, it does not trample on truth.

It doesn't, for instance, cross the BP Line-the disgraceful, cynical decision to use green trade dress and a flower logo to sell gasoline, which is surely a necessary evil but nobody's idea of benign, much less "green." That's not ecomaginative. It's ecomaniacal.

So, all in all, we're prepared to give GE the benefit of the doubt. Surely the company is eager to live down its previous poisonous transgressions. And, just as surely, to make a nice buck selling the antidote.

Review 3 stars

Ad: GE

Agency: BBDO

Location: New York

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