Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Load 16 Tons And What Do You Get? Sex & Hot Bods

Anyone out there know what "ecomagination" is? According to GE, it's something about their "commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions that benefit their customers and society at large." In other words, according to Slate writer Seth Stevenson, "GE has been getting all enviro on us."

All well and fine. More companies should be fighting for cleaner air, although I think the jury is still out on how "clean" burning coal can get.

But check out this GE ad. GE has gone way beyond "ecomagination" all the way to "ecofantasy." This is how Stevenson describes it, but you can't really get the whole flavor unless you view the video yourself here (scroll down to Model 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."
And Stevenson manages to hit my personal "nail" on the head:

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.

And then there's the song over which the miner models gyrate:
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.

GE's miners

GE's miners


GE's miners

GE's miners

Real Coal Miners

REAL Coal Miners

Real  Coal Miners

OSHA whistle-blower Adam Finkel, who sent me this article (and, as usual is not speaking on behalf of OSHA or Princeton University where he is employed) notes the following:

So coal mining is glamorous, not to mention healthful, as none of the models was using any kind of respiratory protection. I’ve never lost a loved one to a cave-in or black lung, so others have far more right to be offended by this latest ‘they don’t get it’ moment than I do. But to me these sorts of ads offer a mirror to how differently we treat environmental versus occupational issues. There are no ‘Times Beach Diet’ commercials extolling the benefits of oiling roads with PCBs, or tourism ads for what remains of the Aral Sea, and yet the dangerous trades continue to be fodder for parody.
Finkel seems to have an eye for inappropriate parody when it comes to workplace safety. Last Fall he contributed a couple of stories to Confined Space, one in which the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team created a commercial where an opposing player gets buried in sand in a construction accident, and another where Mike's Hard Lemonade created a television commercial that featured a construction worker who falls and impales himself on a steel rod and then retreats to a nearby bar for a glass of hard lemonade.

But if may be allowed to carry the inappropriate metaphor too far, I think we all need to chill a bit and learn to make lemonade out of lemons. I mean, if GE can use sex to sell clean coal, why can't John Sweeney and Andy Stern put their heads (or some other appropriate part of their anatomy) together and use sex to sell unions.

With commercials like these, I could get even get my Madison Avenue-wannabe daughter to join. She's probably heading down to apply for a mining job as we speak.


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